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Connections | Magazine

‘My best civic education was watching people come to our garage to vote’

Because our home was a polling place, I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to pull the lever.

Voting in the family garage.Voting booth from AP; car from Adobe Stock

I love to vote in person. Lately with COVID-19, all the hype about potential election fraud (though election fraud in this country has always been minuscule), and renewed talk about popular vote versus the Electoral College, I’ve been reminiscing about how I came to regard voting not only as a privilege but also an exciting community endeavor.

I grew up in the San Francisco suburbs in the 1960s and ’70s. My dad, a World War II vet, and my mom, one of the few women in our neighborhood who worked outside the home, recognized that hosting the voting machines in our garage would make it easier for people in our neighborhood to carry out their civic duty. We lived in one of the houses built for returning veterans. It was a slab ranch with a garage as the focal point, at the bottom of a hill.


The “lever” voting machines would arrive the night before on a flatbed truck. Workmen would unload the machines and place them in the garage along with a table and chairs for the poll workers. Then we’d set out my favorite item: a table covered with oilcloth for the doughnuts and coffee we’d serve the next morning.

The dads arrived early and I would watch as the curtains opened and closed on the booths. Soon it was time to walk to school, but the moment the bell rang, I’d rush home to see the moms with strollers coming to cast their votes. My playmates came with their moms, too. Having those machines in our garage made me feel important. The voting would go on all day — levers pulled, doughnuts disappearing. My parents always took the day off to make sure everything was done right and to socialize with the neighbors (my now 92-year-old father still volunteered as a poll worker until a few years ago).


When the time came to close the polls, Dad would remove the “polling place” sign and the American flag and close the garage door. The lever machines issued the number of votes cast and for whom. The garage would become very quiet as workers matched the machine numbers with the number of voters who’d signed in. After the votes were counted and the tally was verified, Dad would take the official document that had been filled out and witnessed, and call the election bureau to submit the results. Next, we’d turn on the TV and wait for Chet Huntley and David Brinkley to announce who’d won. Living in California, we were always one of the last states to share the outcome of our voting. My bedtime always arrived too early, but in the morning, I’d pounce on my parents to tell me who’d won and ask if they were happy.

I learned about American history in school, but I believe my best civic education was watching people come to our garage to vote. Because our family home was a polling place, I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to pull the lever. It would become a way for me to have a small say in our government, and when I moved around the country, registering to vote would be one of the first things I did.

We only had the voting machines in our garage for a few years, but they made a lasting impression. My husband and I never hosted a polling place in our garage (though Massachusetts allows it, with very strict requirements), but our three children all went to the polls with me when they were young. This year, wearing masks and social distancing, they will vote in three different states. My husband and I will cast our ballots early through the mail. After we go to the post office, we just might go out for a coffee and that doughnut.


Barbara Elfman, an administrator at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, votes in Cambridge.