Archive for Monday, October 4, 2004

Trip to polls lends importance to task

October 4, 2004


For many years I posted on my office wall pictures of the way Americans chose their leader on Nov. 5, 1996. There was a shot of people voting in a Laundromat in Chicago; in a metal utility shed in Smut Eye, Ala.; in a cultural center in Los Angeles; in the Holy Spirit Catholic Church in St. Cloud, Minn.; and in a specially constructed polling place in the Parker Jewish Geriatric Institute in New Hyde Park, N.Y. To me, this was a portrait of America at its best, doing what we do best, in the best possible way.

In my own case I have almost always voted in gymnasiums. There was the Stanley School gym, where I cast my first vote -- appropriately enough in the very gym where I first climbed the ropes and first did a somersault. There was the Janney School gym, where my daughters performed their first music recitals and where they attended their first book fairs. Now I vote in a college gym with conference championship banners hanging on the wall. Voting in a gym gives new meaning to the idea of exercising democratic rights.

But fewer people vote in gyms, or in church basements, or at the Laundromat, or even on Election Day itself, and I worry that something's being lost. Frequent readers of this space are familiar with my complaints that something is being lost somewhere, but the something here is something quite important. It's our American sense of community, plus the notion that what we do on Election Day is something special.

Right this very instant people are voting, and I suppose in a country where half the people don't vote we should be glad for that. And in a way I am. But they are voting for president in October, after only one of the debates has occurred, before the final arguments are over, before one side or another can pull the October Surprise that everyone shudders might just change everything. (There are still four weeks left for that.)

People are voting in 10 states; they're doing it before Halloween and they're doing it by mail. Much of the concern is about voter fraud, or mischief in the mail, or some of the stuff we saw in Dade County and Collier County four years ago, but that's not what worries me. Dead people voted, or so the story goes, in Illinois in 1960, and there was voter fraud and mischief in the mail in the 2000 election. Nothing new about any of that.

What worries me is the loss of a shared civic experience. Generation WWW will scoff at that, and I have heard people tell me that my skepticism about Internet voting (in short: it undermines our American sense of community) doesn't take into consideration how many people find their sense of community online. I am glad there is so much community on the screen, but I live in a neighborhood, not on the screen, and most people still live lives that are not modified by the word virtual, which is after all what makes life real, or at least mine.

"The younger generation is interested in convenience," Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsak of Iowa, where voting began last week, said in a conversation the other morning. "They want to do their duty and get on with whatever else they want to do."

But Election Day is part of American ritual. It is so much a part of American folklore that there has actually been a book written about it, and it is instructive to learn that the book, "Election Day," is part of a series called "An American Holiday, An American History." (Others in the series include "The Glorious Fourth," "Thanksgiving" and "Halloween," which reminds me to tell you that in our family the turkey is real, not virtual, and so are the pumpkins.)

I should admit from the start that my argument is undermined somewhat by this worthy volume, which points out that there wasn't even a uniform Election Day until 1848. I should mention, too, that there was election fraud and deceit even then. But there also was great anticipation and a great sense of occasion. Here's one reminiscence, from a woman who grew up in Newport, R.I., and who recalled that Election Day was, even then, a school holiday:

"On the morning before Election no lazy boy snoozed abed; no little girl begged for one more nap. No warwhooping, no playing with the kittens -- but rush and scramble and with slides and leaps fly down the short flights of the spatterdashed staircase to the rest of the family gathered at a hasty breakfast in a fine old paneled room."

We're too modern and sophisticated for that, and no safety-conscious, OSHA-addled, obsessive-compulsive parent is going to let his little girl leap or fly down a spatterdashed staircase this November. But the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate has examined early voting and found that it actually decreases, not increases, voter participation. In the five states where early voting was permitted from 1988 to 2000, voter participation actually dropped by 1 percentage point. Everywhere else it rose by 1.4 percentage points.

In a fifth of the states, Americans now have the right to vote early, and in nearly half the states we have the right to request an absentee ballot without having an excuse. The result is that many of us can joylessly fill in our mail ballots and dispatch with our duty without running into the fellow down the street whose son is the quarterback this year and the woman who just passed the bar, or, just as probably, another guy who is moaning that the bars are not open. We don't pass into the gym, ripe with perspiration, and ask for our ballot and, right there among our neighbors and in a flood of memories and high hopes, decide what kind of country we are going to have.

You can have the Fourth of July and all the fireworks. Election Day is the most American holiday there is.

-- David Shribman is a columnist for Universal Press Syndicate.

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