By Jamie Coughlin
WASHINGTON – Cassie Lawton usually stays after school for at least an hour to answer her middle school students’ questions on the next day’s assignment, but she could only stay a few extra minutes on Nov. 6, 2012. The polls in the District of Columbia closed at 8 p.m., and Lawton wanted to have enough time to cast her ballot for Barack Obama.
She hopped into her black Toyota Camry for the half hour commute from the middle school in Suitland, Md., where she teaches eighth grade English to the row house she shares with two roommates in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of the District. Her polling place was the community center a few blocks away on 16th Street.
Lawton waited in line for about 30 minutes before she made it to the sign-in table. Name please? Catherine Lawton. Address? 1629 Irving St. Sorry – you’re not registered.
It was late on Election Night, and there was nothing she could do but go home and watch the results dribble in, knowing her vote was not among those being counted that night. “It was awful, it was a huge identity crisis in a lot of ways,” Lawton said.
After living the majority of her life in Cambridge, N.J., Lawton, decided she needed a change and moved to Washington about two years ago. The 35-year-old went to the Department of Motor Vehicles soon after arriving and marked the box indicating she would like to register to vote. Lawton never checked on her registration status again, assuming the paperwork was filed and she was set to vote.
Following the 2012 election, the Medill School of Journalism surveyed nonvoters and separated them into six categories. Lawton represents the smallest group of nonvoters, called the “Doers,” comprising 8 percent of people who didn’t vote. Like Lawton, they tend to be young, educated and highly motivated to vote, but are unable to do so for logistical purposes.
When Obama was first elected in 2008, Lawton was celebrating with friends in the streets of Boston. Like most Doers, she leans fairly far to the left. She reads The New York Times Sunday edition each weekend, and occasionally peruses liberal news sites such as MotherJones.com.
Lawton is a lesbian and equal marriage rights are a driving force behind her politics. As a staunch Democrat, Lawton would not have voted for a Republican, but she found Mitt Romney’s stance on gay marriage particularly offensive.
“You are absolutely allowed to have your own beliefs, but that doesn’t mean you need to tell me what yours are,” Lawton said about Romney’s view that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. “My beliefs have no impact on him.”
Doers tend to be optimistic about the future of the country, and Lawton is no exception. She is hopeful that in the future all couples will be able to be married, regardless of sexual orientation.
Lawton, who has one master’s degree and is a few classes away from earning her second one in education, got her first job as a teacher at Drew Freeman Middle School, where she still teaches, in an economically depressed suburb of the nation’s capital. Social studies classes were casualties of recent budget cuts so Lawton now teaches civics as well as grammar and reading comprehension. She often engages her kids in political discussions on local issues that could affect their lives. Lawton encourages her students to educate the adults in their lives about these issues and ask them to vote.
Lawton never thought she’d be one of those adults who do not exercise their civic duty by making their voice heard at the ballot box. On Election Night 2012, she felt like she had violated her students’ trust.
“I actually didn’t tell them that I didn’t vote,” Lawton said. “I thought about it and went back and forth, but given how much I had talked to them about [voting], I just didn’t bring it up.”