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(Photo by M.B. Hersh)

CASTING VOTES FOR CIVIC DUTY: Laura Wooten, who celebrates her 83rd birthday on Friday, is also being commemorated for more than 60 years working the polls in Borough elections with proclamations from the New Jersey State Senate and Princeton Borough.
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Election Worker Honored For 60 Years of Service

Matthew Hersh

Most people interpret the phrase "get out the vote" as a campaign to galvanize participation at the polls. But once Election Day has passed, the motivation to get individuals involved begins to wane – that is, for most people.

Laura Wooten, on the other hand, has been getting the vote out in Princeton for more than 60 years.

Ms. Wooten, who will celebrate her 83rd birthday on Friday, says that while the task of achieving community activism has become more challenging over the years, she is not daunted. "There was a time when everyone used to vote," she said, describing how her mission has changed over the years. "But I enjoy people and like to stay active."

As a member of the Princeton Board of Elections, Ms. Wooten sees the mission of more participatory government as an uphill, but achievable battle. "Young people are hard to reach, and a lot of them think their votes don't count," she said. However, she staunchly maintains that "one vote does count."

Ms. Wooten moved to Princeton from Goldsboro, N.C., in 1924 when she was four years old. At the request of her great uncle, Anderson Mitnaul, she began working at the polls in the early 1940s and has continued to do so ever since.

A member of PHS Class of '39, Ms. Wooten remembers her early days of manning the polls. "Back in those days, [the election center] was where the Arts Council is now," she said. "It was in the 'Black Y.'"

For Ms. Wooten's five children raised under the November tradition, election time was always considered an annual rite. "We grew up knowing that on Election Day, our mother would be gone early in the morning – before we woke up – and not return until late at night," said daughter Yvonne Wooten Hill.

Ms. Hill added that her mother's concern for family and community comes from her "generosity of spirit, and greatness of heart."

That "generosity" has not diminished over the years as Ms. Wooten looks after her 78-year-old brother and monitors the health of her 80-year-old sister.

However, despite receiving proclamations from both the New Jersey State Senate and Princeton Borough, she remains humble about her achievements. "It's the first time I've been recognized for this, but I want to use it to set an example for other members of the community," she said. Ms. Wooten also worries about the problem of mobile access to civic events such as voting that older members of the community have to face. As a Lawrence resident working in Princeton, she underlined the difficulty of publicly transporting oneself from outlying areas. "They used to have transportation that would pick people up and take them to the polls," she said. "You don't see that anymore."

"Transportation for seniors is a problem," she said, emphasizing the need and demand for more service in the area.

As a Princeton University dining services employee through the Senior Employment program, Ms. Wooten has her granddaughter, who is also a University employee, give her rides every morning. In the evenings, she relies on Mercer County TRADE for transportation back home.

Prior to dining services, Ms. Wooten spent 18 years as a nurse's aide at the University Medical Center of Princeton. She then moved across the street to Community Park School and served as a teacher's assistant. She began work at the University in 1991 at the age of 72.

Ms. Wooten moved to Lawrence to be closer to family after her husband passed away. However, after living eight years in Lawrence, she is "still trying to get used to not living in Princeton." "I still have family in Princeton, so I couldn't leave the area. Of course, I had no choice when I was growing up," she said, grinning.

So what does the future hold for this octogenarian? "Because I like to be active and have been active my whole life, I'll stay [at the University] until they kick me out the door," she quipped. In a more serious tone, she said she would like to volunteer at the hospital, but underlined transportation limitations.

What is virtually guaranteed, however, is Ms. Wooten's yearly appearance every first Tuesday in November. She said she wants to continue energizing people in the community so they will exercise their civic duties. "Every year, I say I'm not going back, but I always do," she said. "I just love it."

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