It took more than blindness and having a leg amputated to prevent 84-year-old Carl Johnson from voting.
Not even death could keep the Coeur d’Alene resident and World War II veteran from participating in democracy.
Johnson died three days before the May 25 primary election, but he managed to fill out an absentee ballot shortly before his death. Thanks to a new state law, his ballot was counted.
Johnson’s widow, Rae, said he would have been furious had his vote been thrown out. Besides, Democrats in North Idaho need all the help they can get, Rae Johnson joked.
“That would have been devastating to him to think that he voted and it would not be counted,” she said. “He would have been raving about the fellas overseas who might have been killed and their votes not counted, either.”
Kootenai County Clerk Dan English worked with Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, to change the law. The issue had long been a cause for English. Throwing away a dead citizen’s absentee ballot didn’t happen often, but English said he was “heartbroken” on the few occasions that it did.
“When you think of dead people voting, you think of Chicago,” English said. “It’s not that at all. Our feeling was if they cast it and it’s here, it should be treated like any other vote. All the safeguards are in place.”
The issue was even more pressing with troops fighting on foreign battlefields, English said. Soldiers serving overseas vote by absentee ballot.
“If they got killed in action defending the right to vote and we would have to discard that — I just can’t imagine that. It’s just plain wrong,” English said.
Typically, bills don’t take effect until July 1. Sayler and English made sure the law had an emergency clause, allowing it to become the law of the land the moment it was signed by the governor. The law covers every resident of Idaho, but Sayler said he was especially pleased to learn that it benefited a citizen from his district.
“I’m very gratified that I was able to protect that person’s vote,” Sayler said. “He certainly gave a big sacrifice to protect our country.”
Voting was a duty that Johnson took seriously, his wife said. She doesn’t know exactly why he was so passionate about voting, but she offered a few guesses.
Maybe it was because of his service during World War II, she said. Johnson served with the 158th Infantry in Alaska. Later in the war he helped guard the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb.
But even before joining the U.S. Army, Johnson was doing his part to improve the country. During the Great Depression, he worked for the federal government planting blister-resistant white pine in North Idaho. After the war he built a home in Coeur d’Alene’s Sanders beach neighborhood and worked as a postal clerk.
Johnson lost his sight late in life. But he didn’t slow down. Thanks to the training he received in 1996 from the Idaho Commission for the Blind in Boise, Johnson was able to continue woodworking.
“He would even run the power saw,” Rae Johnson said. No, he didn’t cut off any of his fingers, she added.
Johnson’s congestive heart failure worsened in recent weeks. Getting around was increasingly difficult. But he made sure he had filled out his absentee ballot. “He knew he was dying,” his wife said.
The simple act of voting was no longer so easy. Johnson needed his wife’s help to fill out the ballot.
Most other county residents never bothered to vote. Turnout was 24 percent.
“I think that’s awful,” Rae Johnson said. “What’s the matter with people? This is our right and privilege!”
She was more than happy to share her husband’s tale with the public.
“He would be proud to think that he would help with voting,” Rae Johnson said.
English, the county clerk, hopes people who think they are too busy to vote in the next election will remember the tale of the blind, one-legged veteran who still managed to perform his democratic duties while on his death bed.
“Of all the things you think you might want to concentrate on as you’re dying — for him, voting was one of the highest priorities,” English said.
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