Sunday, October 27, 1996
Boarding now for the 1996 guilt trip

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Are you planning to vote this year? If you are not, I'd like to introduce you to some people.

There is a gentleman in a pale blue, patterned hospital gown. His mind is sharp, but he can barely raise his head from the pillow. Wispy white hair, mashed flat in back. He is very sick. Old, too.

Shirley Lynch reads the Official Absent Voter ballot to him. He responds 32 times. Sometimes his voice is so faint that the other Hamilton County Board of Elections worker, Lula Lee, has to ask him to repeat his answer. Once, on the riverboat gambling initiative, they misunderstand.

So, they void the ballot, which already had 28 careful puncture marks. Not a sigh of exasperation. Not a quibble. They don't roll their eyes behind his back. They start over again. This is important work.

Doing their duty

The citizens I met at St. Margaret Hall in O'Bryonville didn't get their information from yard signs. They watch local and network television news, read The Enquirer. And they debate.

Emily Ireton, who will be 90 next April, is nearly blind. But she hears plenty. ''I have a very well-informed son,'' she says, ''and we have discussions.''

I'll bet they do.

Transplanted here after her marriage nearly 70 years ago, she still has a hint of Boston in her voice. Beautifully coiffed, carefully accessorized with simple jewelry and aqua socks to match the pattern in her running suit, she knows exactly what she wants to do with her vote.

She understands the issues and has her mind made up about the candidates.

''I have never, ever not voted since I had the privilege,'' she says.

Ditto for Lucille Evans, 95. ''If we don't vote, we can't criticize.''

Well, there's that. Also some of the men, especially in the VA hospitals, have the old-fashioned notion that it would be disrespectful not to vote. Wasteful. Some of them will tell you what your vote cost them when they were young soldiers.

One man, 99 years old, recounted his memories of World War I to an attentive John Campbell and Paul Lynch, the other two members of this election team. There are 14 workers, three teams of four - two Democrats and two Republicans - and a team of two who follow up when there are stragglers or problems.

''If it's a bad day, we'll go back,'' says Ellie Heeg, who organizes the workers to make trips to 75 area nursing homes during October. A bad day, when you're in your 90s, can be very bad indeed.

One of St. Margaret's residents who planned to vote on this day told Mary McConn, the admissions coordinator, that he didn't feel up to it after all. I assume it must have been very serious.

Unfair stereotypes

It's probably not fair to make assumptions. Elderly voters are as varied as they were when they were young. Republicans, Democrats, some a little of both. One made workers shout information over the sound of a game show. Another played classical music.

But there was a universal pride in what they were doing. Just voting. One vote, which counts just as much as a vote cast by somebody who can run around the block and has 20/20 vision.

Guilt trips? I've taken so many that I have frequent flier miles. I'd like to share this one with my fellow able-bodied Americans who might be too busy, too disgusted, too jaded to vote on Nov. 5.

I looked again at the old man in the blue gown. He has a beaked nose that I'll bet needs a pair of spectacles on it. He struggles a little for breath.

I'd sure hate to look him in the eye and say that I was running a little late for my tai chai class and couldn't make it to the polls. After he finished voting, Lula Lee, 86 years old, carefully brushes the confetti from the punched ballot into a shoe box filled with buff-colored envelopes and a strip of red-white-and-blue, self-adhesive stickers.

She peels one off and presses it down gently on the front of the pale blue hospital gown. The old man can just manage to pass one bony, crooked index finger over the words ''I Voted Today.''

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax to 768-8340. She can be heard on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.