Democracy in High Places

We went dutifully to exercise our franchise on Tuesday, feeling more sense of responsibility than passion about a local election where, in our neighborhood, only school board seats were up for occupancy.

On our way to the polling place, schools were in mind. We used to vote, happily, at the local elementary school amid the arrival of all those little future voters until the place closed for lack of local children. Then we were sent to a synagogue for several elections, to vote, almost devotionally, where several precincts pooled partisanship. But this year the instructions were to environments of neither future nor faith; we were sent to the nearest Holiday Inn, a most remarkable tube standing tall above the Santa Monica Freeway.

The outdoor parking lot was full at 7:30 a.m. Down, then, to the basement garage and a walk up over the artificial turf leading to the lobby entrance. No sign of an election in the lobby, just two families checking out. No sign instructing citizens toward the polling place, either. We called across one family to ask directions. The cashier shrugged; two members of the departing family grimaced over their shoulders, as if democracy had no place in their itinerary.

We asked for the manager, who appeared promptly, sending us up to the 16th floor for voting purposes. He'd never had this responsibility before, he said. He would ride the elevator with us to make sure that franchises were operative at that altitude.

They were. The same stately women who used to woman the tables at school and then at the synagogue were seated on the 16th floor overlooking a rival hotel across the freeway. They had been afraid, they said, that only one voter would show up at the polling place; he came at about opening time, and no one else had come for 40 minutes. We were No. 2. Double occupancy. By the end of Election Day 27 more neighbors found their way to the polls--a total of 29 citizens out of a precinct with 450 registered voters.

The humor of voting in a hotel, a polling place of commerce, veils a serious question of how to increase citizen participation. The exercise of franchise should be made easier rather than more difficult. The act of voting should be as close to home as possible, in one's own precinct rather than in a place combining precincts. The Holiday Inn promises to do more about directions in the future. And the stakes will surely be higher for the presidential primaries, thereby raising interest. But in an era of diminishing returns, the prospect of basement parking, walking over artificial grass roots and elevator riding does not much enhance participation by voters who already live behind signs of "Do Not Disturb."

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