Laura Wooten is on a mission.
The 97-year-old’s desire is to see citizens exercise their civic duty by voting. This has been her mission for more than seven decades while working the election polls through the administrations of nearly 15 presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to our current president.
“A lot of people use the excuse that their vote doesn’t count, so they don’t vote,” Wooten shared when speaking to the North Dallas Gazette by phone. “But I guess it doesn’t if you don’t vote. How can it count if you don’t vote?”
Wooten began working at the polls back in 1939 when her uncle asked her to volunteer in her hometown of Princeton, New Jersey. She would start her day at 6 a.m. and end it late at 9 p.m. Wooten worked as a “challenger” checking voters off a registration list. Wooten said a driver would come by later on and pick up the list to see who was not checked off for voting. The driver would then take that list and go to each unchecked voter’s house and pick them up to bring them to the polls.
To cast their votes, Wooten said voters would write in their votes on paper ballots, and at the end of their shift, she and the other poll workers would count each vote by hand because there were no machines to tally the votes.
“There are not too many challengers anymore,” she said. “It’s hard to get people to work at the polls. People don’t volunteer too much. At least not in my district.”
Wooten said more people voted in her day, but now voter participation has waned. She sees less voting in the primaries than she does in the general election, and to her, the primaries are the most important elections to participate in. Wooten is unsure what needs to happen to eliminate voter apathy but suggested perhaps more classes or lectures on the importance of voting would compel people to vote.
“I encourage the young people that they are American citizens, and they should go out and vote,” Wooten said. “The only change you’re going to see is if you vote. You can’t complain if you don’t vote.”
Yvonne Hill, Wooten’s daughter, said her mother stresses the importance of voting because of its power and impact. Hill herself feels voting is crucial because votes determine how resources are allocated and how districts are drawn.
For the past 10 years, Hill has been working to get her mother’s story out there, a story she feels is a national one. Throughout the years Hill’s mother has tirelessly encouraged people to vote regardless of their party or political stance. As a matter of fact, Hill said Wooten’s message to folks is not who to vote for, but to just vote.
Over the years, Wooten agrees she has witnessed quite a bit of progress made, resulting in social change throughout America. However, she but feels there remains room for improvement.
“Black women should come out and vote because we were the last to get to vote,” Wooten said. “I never thought I’d see a black president in my lifetime. Someday I hope to see a woman in the presidency and see what she will do for the country.”
In mid-September, Wooten received the Leadership Award from the National Newspaper Publishers Association in recognition for her volunteer service. Wooten was honored for her service again by New Jersey’s U.S Representative Donald Payne Jr., on the House floor in late September. She will receive further recognition in mid-October when she receives the Lifetime Achievement Award from a New Jersey chapter of the NAACP and another accolade from the South Jersey Journal.
Awards aside, Wooten will still continue her 79-year job of volunteering when she participates in this year’s mid-term elections. She will help to set up the voting machines before the polls open at a local fire station in her current residence in Lawrence, New Jersey. And she will still work at the polls from 5:15 a.m. till a little after 8 p.m.
“I just enjoy working at the polls,” she said. “I meet a lot of people. People I haven’t seen in years, that come out to vote which means a lot to me.”