Aug. 14 is an important day in Minnesota: It is the day of the primary election. This may not mean much to you, but it is critical for the polis.

At my favorite women’s lunch meeting last week, the talk turned to the elections. We all agreed that the need to vote was never greater. The two college presidents who were part of the conversation, from St. Catherine University and Hamline University, outlined for us the efforts they make to encourage and facilitate students’ efforts to register and vote. Someone also mentioned the need to promote informed voting and educated citizenship.

 

The idea of informed voting brought me back to a near-disaster in my young life. It was early in my voting years. I was just married, had my first teaching job and was full of self-importance as a newly minted adult.

My husband, Mike, just out of law school, brought up the local St. Paul elections one night as we talked. “Whatever you do, don’t vote for Bill Smith [not the actual name],” he warned. “Why not?” I asked. “Isn’t he a lawyer?” “Yes,” Mike replied. “But he’s no good. He’s a fraud and he’s running for the bench. Just remember his name.”

Those were the fatal words. A few days later, in the voting booth, I marked the statewide and congressional office candidate boxes with assurance. I knew who I supported there, and why. But then my eyes glazed over as I scanned the rest of the list. There were many names in a long list for local offices. I did not recognize any of them — that is, until my glance fell on one familiar name: Bill Smith.

Mike mentioned him, I thought. I think he said he’s a lawyer. Finally, a name I recognized! I marked the ballot for Bill Smith and left, feeling some satisfaction.

At dinner that night, Mike had just come from voting on the way home from his office. We discussed the races for governor, Senate and House. Then I added: “I’m glad you told me about Bill Smith. His was the only name that rang a bell in the list of local office-seekers. At least I could vote for someone we know.”

I cannot describe the look on my husband’s face. Or I would rather not describe it. Nor do I want to repeat his response. I think it included the word “dummy.” Suffice it to say, I never entered the ballot box again without doing more advance work than I did that first year. Although our marriage lasted another 47 years, it could easily have gone down the tubes that night.

Someone else at the women’s discussion group last week raised another question: What happens when you have differing views from your partner or spouse? Yes, that can be a problem.

My father was a rockbound Republican. My mother, the daughter of an Irish immigrant, was what might be called today a “progressive.” She gave passionate support to any Democrat. Our family had just moved to the Chicago suburbs, and the presidential election that year was a contest between Tom Dewey and Harry Truman. (Yes, you are remembering correctly. That’s the year the Chicago Daily Tribune put out the newspaper with the premature headline mistakenly announcing Dewey’s election as president of the United States.)

My father worked in the city, taking the “El” into work early every morning, while my mother was busy settling into our new home. My mother proposed that, since they both were busy and they would cancel each other’s vote anyway, they each just not vote that year. My father, harried with the pressures of his new job and commuting, agreed. He was an honorable man and saw the value of the trade-off.

One night soon after the election, there was one of those energetic exchanges that my parents always seemed to find so stimulating. The topics they argued about were either politics or money. (I preferred politics.) In the midst of their heated discussion, my mother announced: “And another thing. I know I said I wasn’t going to vote if you didn’t, but I did vote in the election. And I voted for Harry Truman!”

My father was, for once, speechless. I don’t think he ever quite regained his faith in human nature. And, of course, it just may have been my mother’s vote that put Harry Truman over the top.

So my advice is simple. Don’t be a dummy. Read up on candidates, what they have done and what they say they will do. Campaigns will be passing out a lot of brochures, and the League of Women Voters also has information. There’s a lot of material in the newspaper and from legitimate sources online. Oh, and if your partner does not agree with you on political candidates, just don’t bring the topic up. Avoid arguments. And whatever you do, don’t agree not to vote!

 

Judith Koll Healey is a novelist and biographer living in Minneapolis.