One of my earliest memories is being taken along with my mother to the polling place in Akron, Ohio, an enormous school gym with the smell of polished wood floors mingled with the smoke being puffed by the election workers, and the hum of rustling papers and hushed voices. I asked who my mother had voted for afterwards, and she said it was not something you told everybody; it was special, something you thought about very carefully before doing. Voting was obviously a sacred ritual of American civil religion - more important than the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance I would join in later; less noisy but more momentous than the Fourth of July. It meant something. I wasn't sure yet what, but it meant something.
A lifetime later, and I am feeling rather disconnected from the physical reality of Election Day. In Washington State, we no longer go to a polling place to vote. All elections are conducted by mail-in ballot. There is no satisfying drop of the heavy paper ballot into the ballot box, no smell of gymnasium floors, no pleasant repartee with the retirees manning the tables for the precincts. It's virtual voting, if you will, in the comfort of your own home, with only the standard-issue voter's guide, also sent in the mail, and chatting with whoever else in your household wants to share the voting chore with you. This is all done in the name of making it easier for people to vote, and trying to ensure greater participation. I'm sure these are all good things, but it feels less exciting, even less important somehow.
Now, it's not a Presidential election year, and Washington State has no Senate race this year. I maintain that local races are important, of course. I will be interested in watching the results in other states, I suppose. But I can't help also feeling that we are missing out on something by not going through the shared minor hardship of driving to the local polling place, waiting in line with our fellow-citizens, deciphering the ballot then and there, and seeing our own ballot join the ranks of others. It gives you just that much more confidence, that we are all citizens of the same country and we all have the same basic concerns no matter what party we favor. It's not that I'm afraid the ballots won't get counted (although there is always that nagging feeling that they might not be if no one is watching the polls, because there are no polls to watch). It's not that I don't care about the races I voted for. But I think that something vital is lost in our common culture when we don't ever learn to do even one thing as a community, at the same time.
When was the last time that everyone in America was doing the same thing at roughly the same time? September 11 maybe? Maybe watching Presidential election returns or debates, but more likely a major sporting event. Mostly, we go our own ways, living lives of personal peace and affluence, skipping the hardship as much as possible. Sometimes, on an uncomfortable airline flight, I have had the surreal experience of looking around and thinking, "are these the people I'm going to die with?" But at least there were people there, and most of them were Americans. It's a little the same with elections; it's a shared experience, and even if a great tragedy occurs, in the air or at the polls, it is our experience as Americans and we will go through it together. This all-mail balloting tends to lead many people to see elections as major nuisances, and our government as something that is somehow anti-social. Political ads are increasingly more strident and divisive, and it's a little easier to tune them out or write them off now. We are more cynical when unsolicited ads, calls, and ballots show up at our residences. We stop seeing government as something that we change, a series of real tasks facing real people in a real world. And we tend to care only about the big races, forgetting that every big race started out as a little one, with people in it who were once unknowns.
It is at times like these that I like to think of the time I physically met our Congresswoman, Jamie Herrera Beutler, when she was still a state representative and spoke at the Cedar Tree groundbreaking, and little toddler Tertia tried to climb into her car which was parked right next to ours. The physicality of it may not take away my nostalgia for the smell of polished wood gymnasium floors, but it tells its own story of connectedness in an increasingly isolated America.
We must hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.