By Colin Deppen of Spotlight PA
HARRISBURG — Gareth Biser of Gettysburg hasn’t missed a November election since he cast his first vote for a presidential contender named Dwight Eisenhower in 1956.
Biser will turn 87 on Nov. 2, six days before this year’s pivotal midterm election. He said nothing short of an act of god will keep him from the polls.
The Army vet and former professor is something of a voting luminary, his unbroken streak having earned him a spot in Pennsylvania’s Voter Hall of Fame alongside 23,773 other balloters who went at least 50 consecutive cycles without missing a single November contest. Municipal elections, midterm elections, presidential elections — they’ve done it all.
PA Local spoke to more than a dozen of Pennsylvania’s Hall of Fame voters from geographically and politically diverse corners of the state.
A number declined to be named in this piece. Almost all of them — members of the Silent Generation — were supremely matter-of-fact when discussing their accomplishments.
“I see here that you voted in 50 straight November elections…” I said to one on the other end of a scratchy landline connection. Their response was immediate: “Yes… and?”
Some started casting ballots when the voting age was still 21. Others began around the time of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protected the right for millions of disenfranchised Black people nationwide.
There were common threads in their responses to the question “Why has your voting record stayed so flawless?” They said voting was a responsibility and a right, or, at a minimum, a means of preserving your standing to complain if you don’t like an outcome. (The issues motivating their votes this year are less uniform.)
Betty Ann Nichols, 91, of Allegheny County grew up in a bipartisan household — one parent a Democrat, the other a Republican. “But they hardly ever went to vote,” she recalled. Nichols, a longtime poll worker and Hall of Fame voter (class of 2004), took the opposite approach.
In Philadelphia, Hall of Famer Barry Lebowitz (class of 2017), who came of age as a voter in the Vietnam War Era, recounted several mad dashes to the polls on Election Day and several near misses.
”But I always made it,” he added nonchalantly. “They were always open until 8.”
May Boland, 86, also of Philly and the class of ‘17, said she uses her Hall of Fame status to proselytize now: “I encourage my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to vote.”
Husband and wife Shirley Bentzel, 84, and Glenn Bentzel, 86, of Gettysburg, were inducted in 2012 and have kept the streak going, only now they do so by mail.
“I will continue to vote as long as I can,” Shirley added.
Most of the Hall of Famers who spoke with PA Local said they didn’t apply for the recognition themselves (but you can). Instead, they were nominated by state representatives, fellow election workers, or fellow members of a local political party committee.
(The first members of the Voter Hall of Fame were inducted in 1982.)
Many reflected on the changes they’d seen over five-plus decades of voting: their own political affiliations, voting methods, the intensity of the political climate, and voting rules — The Inquirer reported that a 2012 update to Pennsylvania’s voter ID law threatened to keep one-quarter of all living Hall of Fame voters from casting ballots. The law was later struck down.
Other changes have been more concrete.
Douglas Boden, 86, of Gettysburg was inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside his wife, Eunice, in 2014. Eunice died in January of last year from Alzheimer’s disease.
“Of course I miss having her to vote with, of course I do,” Douglas said by phone. “When I go to the polls now, I never fail to think of her… very very much.”
“We were very proud,” he said of he and his wife’s Hall of Fame inductions, which are noted on a state-issued certificate that he keeps displayed in the study of their home.
“As you go through life, you do the things you need to do and want to do and have to do, and you don’t think much of it. Then sometimes it catches up with you and you say ‘My goodness, we didn’t miss any [November elections].’ And we looked back and were happy it worked out that way.”
Boden, who has never missed a primary either, jokes that he’s a “Hall of Famer on steroids.”
Asked if there’s an election in his decades-long voting career that stands out, he only goes a few years back to the presidential contests of 2016 and 2020.
Elections have always been rancorous, he said, but the contemporary tone and fallout are increasingly unrecognizable to him.
”You used to have an election and afterward the contestants were cooperative, in most cases. I see that being eroded now.”
He’s looking to future Hall of Famers to carry the mantle and “vote their conscience.”
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