By DEBRA RAWLINGS

For Rantoul Press

"Old enough to fight, old enough to vote."

The idea that 18-year-old boys who were old enough to be drafted should be old enough to vote for the people who sent them to war first surfaced during World War II.

But it wasn’t until public unrest over the Vietnam War in the 1960s that lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 gained enough support to go anywhere. It was finally accomplished with ratification of the 26th amendment on July 1, 1971.

At that time, I was a high school student and believed strongly that though I was at no risk of being drafted, I too should be able to vote at 18. I looked forward to casting that first vote. But I was born a year too late to participate when 18-year-olds went to the polls in 1972 to elect a president for the first time.

It was with a great deal of pride that, as a college student and self-proclaimed independent, I cast my first vote for Jimmy Carter on Nov. 2, 1976, in Lawrence, Kan. Ironically, I was 21.

My vote is one of my most precious possessions. My vote is my voice. The significance of exercising my voice was a lesson I learned a very long time ago.

I was 8 years old and my parents were engaged in another of their loud and frequent arguments. Into the furor I piped up with awful clarity one of those out-of-the-mouth-of-babes insights. The response was immediate and thunderous.

"Children are to be seen and not heard!"

I crawled into a comforting corner to soothe my hurt and humiliation and nurse my anger. Never again, I vowed, would I let my voice be silenced.

I carry that vow into the voting booth. Sometimes the candidates I vote for win. Sometimes they lose. That matters to me, but what matters more is that I let my voice be heard.

When I vote, I honor the women who worked for nearly a century to gain that right. The women’s suffrage movement was launched at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Women marched and picketed. They were ridiculed, injured, arrested, mistreated and jailed in horrible conditions. They went on hunger strikes and were force fed raw eggs and milk through tubes into their stomachs.

White women were given the right to vote with ratification of the 19th amendment on Aug. 18, 1920 — 35 years and two days before I was born. Native American women had to wait until 1924, Chinese-American women until 1943, Japanese-American and other Asian-American women until 1952 and African-American women until 1965.

When I cast my first vote, the outcome of the presidential race was what mattered to me. Local elections weren’t on my radar until we moved to Rantoul in 1996. I had lived mostly in communities where coverage of municipal and school boards is brief and buried in suburban and city newspapers.

That sort of coverage is the bread and butter of the Rantoul Press. As I read reports of board meetings, issues and people came alive. In 2001 I was hired to be a reporter for the Press and over the years have observed village boards, school boards and occasional county doings in Rantoul, Thomasboro, Ludlow, Mahomet and Monticello.

What I learned is that local elections, which have the poorest voter turnout, are the most crucial to our daily lives. County, township, village, school boards and other elected bodies decide what our neighborhoods will look like, when the streets in front of our homes will be fixed, how much we will pay for electricity, how our children will be taught, how our police departments will be run and how much we will pay in property and sales tax. Who makes those decisions matters. We cannot afford to give away our voices on such issues.

Voting in Illinois is the easiest it’s ever been. You must be a U.S. citizen, you must be 18 years old on or before the next election, and you must live in the election precinct at least 30 days prior to the election.

Grace-period, or same-day, registration, allows residents to register and vote up to the end of election day. To register during the grace period, residents must present two forms of identification, one showing proof of address, in person at an early-voting location or polling place.

Early voting, which began Feb. 21 and will continue through April 1, allows residents to vote at a time more convenient for them and to avoid lines on election day. The Gathering Place, 200 S. Century Blvd., is the early voting location in Rantoul.

A criminal record does not bar residents from voting. Residents lose the right to vote during incarceration, but voting rights are restored upon release from prison.

Residents on parole or probation also have the right to vote. Re-registration is advised.

Please vote on — or before — April 2. Don’t let your voice be silenced!

Debra Rawlings is a resident of Rantoul.