For the past few elections, I've been breaking the law.
Demonstrating democracy in action, I thought it was – bringing my children to the polling booth, and letting them take pen in hand to "completely darken" the little ovals by the name of candidates I wanted to vote for.
But with an election day coming up Tuesday, just to make sure that my bright idea of a teaching moment was acceptable, I called the city election department.
"Is it OK for someone else other than the registered voter to mark the ballot?" I asked. For example, may I let my child do it? I was put on hold. It is OK, they said, to bring a helper if you are disabled and need assistance. But if you just want to bring a child? They weren't sure. I was referred to the secretary of state's office.
Ring, ring. "Elections." I repeated my question. More holding the line. And the answer: Children are allowed in the booth, but their participation stops there. I was quoted Chapter 54, Section 69 of the Massachusetts General Law: "Children, in the company of a voter, may be admitted within the guardrail unless the election officer in charge deems that the admittance of such child would disrupt the maintenance of order."
Well, I can certainly sympathize with the "disrupting of order" part.
What's the adage about quitting while you're ahead? Oh yeah, it goes something like, "don't ask so many questions."
So officially, according to the officials, I've been breaking the law by letting my kids mark the ballots. And since I'm a rule follower, now I'll have to explain my ignorance to my kids and deflate their budding civic spirits by telling them they need to wait a bunch more years to vote. But I'm also stubborn. So I'm reading some more of the election laws, and it doesn't seem that clear-cut to me. Besides, no one has every called me on the practice before. And that includes those very official-looking, law-enforcing uniformed officers who look up your name and address when you go to vote.
I could be really ornery and ask for permission at the polls – not that poll workers will necessarily be charmed into submission by my family, but it might work. On a large scale, I can see how untold bunches of sticky fingers on the paperwork of our democracy could wreak havoc on the system. Once, we were even required to trash a ballot and start over. My daughter had strayed outside the lines, one of the darkened ovals on the ballot being not quite perfect. The optical scanner rejected the ballot, and we filled out another one. But that might happen to an adult as well. Could this really be illegal?
Maybe a lawyer could help me straighten this out.... Or I could just move on.
Anyway, in this run-up to city council elections next week – and the next 12 months of a very long U.S. presidential campaign – let us turn our attention to a different lesson: Please take out your copy of "Make Way for Ducklings."
Robert McCloskey's 70-year-old classic, about a pair of mallards and their search for the perfect place to raise a family, happily ends in the Boston Public Garden. But the book also features the Massachusetts State House, and since inclusion in a picture book legitimizes the place in the eyes of a child, a visit to the State House is a great way to introduce the all-American concepts of democracy.
(OK, you can get all cynical on me now, and run down to Dewey Square to use Occupy Boston as your classroom instead. That's fine, too.)
But if you've walked and driven by the seat of our commonwealth's government countless times before, it is time to play tourist in your own city and get inside and underneath that gold dome.
The place is a beehive of activity, with videotaping of press conferences, legislative sessions, and the governor's meetings all going on simultaneously. Tours are given by cheerful volunteers on weekdays. (The tour is free – chief advantage being, if your child is bored by marble, flags, and portraits of Massachusetts's long-gone chief executives – you can duck out early at little cost.)
To accompany the bits and pieces of history you'll learn, there's a bookstore, which, besides the very important aforementioned McCloskey book, sells every boring photocopied document published by the state that you could want – and may at some point very much need. In the governor's waiting room, stand to the side, in case Deval Patrick needs to rush out of his office and doesn't have time to greet you and your fellow tourists. Check out the paintings of the most recent governors, and you'll see how Mitt Romney wanted Bay Staters to remember him. Don't forget to ask your tour guide why, in his portrait, Gov. William Weld is standing by an armadillo.
And as we learned on the State House tour, know that every citizen has the "right of free petition," which means that you, too, can file legislation through your elected representative. It's a right unique to Massachusetts, which is further distinguished by the world's oldest constitution in use today. This is how eight-year-olds made chocolate chip the official state cookie, and schoolchildren also petitioned to recognize the state berry (cranberry), dessert (Boston cream pie), muffin (corn), and, of course, official state children's book: Need you ask?