Vote for a Party, Then Have a Party
Even predictions of a record-low voter turnout last Tuesday in California couldn’t dim the jolt of energy I usually get when I vote. My enthusiasm felt a bit uncool -- excited by this governor’s race? -- or, at the least, unwarranted.
But I like to vote. I enjoy the act from beginning to end -- the break from the day’s writing, the walk down the street, the fact that an art gallery becomes a polling site, the list with all my neighbors’ names and addresses, the fun of the card-punching, the old-fashioned slot for the ballots, the newfangled “I voted” stickers (I have to confess) and the three-block walk back home. I even like the potentially threatening sounds of card-punching in the adjacent booths. No matter the outcome, I get a charge out of the act of voting.
Then the predictions came true -- barely half of the state’s registered voters showed up -- and our small but lovely voting rituals came under attack again, as pundits issued the usual calls to switch to mail-in or Internet ballots to make voting easier. Amid the cries of “What is to be done?” one of the most popular solutions is not to go to the polls at all. Oregon converted to vote-by-mail for the 2000 election, and counties in Washington and Colorado and cities from Denver to Burbank have been trying it.
We all realize that Americans don’t just fail to vote because it isn’t easy enough, and that tinkering with the act itself won’t necessarily solve the rampant civic apathy, and the disenchantment with politics, at the heart of the problem. I agree, however, that the act of voting does need serious reform. I also fear that voting at one’s computer desk moves us in exactly the wrong direction.
What we should do instead is make election day a national holiday. How and when and where we vote is important. We should make voting more of a big deal, not less, because how we experience voting -- the culture we create around this act -- says a great deal to us about our commitment to civic engagement, and can either nourish or discourage it.
Voting by mail, in fact, hasn’t increased turnout that significantly. How could it? Making voting easier is an excellent idea -- and setting aside the day to just vote would do that. But you are not going to bestir great crowds of people to vote by making this vital civic act even less meaningful, more atomistic and less community-based than it already is.
Election day through much of the 1800s was a sort of big sprawling free-for-all, with parades and speeches and bands, as well as fistfights and gambling. Businesses spontaneously shut down. Much drinking was involved. We’ve made some improvements to the electoral experience since then -- I, for one, appreciate that women can now vote -- but would that at least a few Americans still cared enough about the process to get rousing drunk. How about barbecues or potlucks or whatever style of party, however sober or not, you prefer?
With an election day holiday, we’ll need our own rituals. How about events all afternoon to vent the day’s passions of hope and disappointment -- debates, costume parties, dramatic readings, dancing, brisk backyard November ballgames or sitting around and watching “The Candidate” or “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or “The American President” or “Air Force One” while cheering and/or making snide comments? Come nighttime, how about flooding the cafes and bars to watch the returns, or just heating up vast numbers of pizzas and gathering around home-sized TVs to channel-surf together, for hours, while the close races crawl to a finish.
Think Super Bowl Sunday. Election Tuesday, too -- an event that concerns even those of us who don’t care much about football -- should be a day of great national celebration with an aggressive undercurrent of partisanship. Shouldn’t the day, in a democracy, that we choose who will govern be a day as rife with collective rituals? Isn’t this day at least as worthy of national observance as George Washington’s birthday, Columbus Day, Veterans Day or Thanksgiving -- all of which are more contested as national experiences? And wouldn’t our kids, if they grew up feasting all day, whooping it up and staying up late to watch the outcome, be more inclined as adults to believe and assume they should go to the polls? It would be at least as effective a route to civic awareness, I’m betting, as flying a flag on the family SUV.
A rich election-day culture in itself might not stem the rising tide of civic apathy and distrust that makes us all want to waste our vote and not pay our taxes and opt out of jury duty and, overall, say to ourselves that government is them and not us. But it might help.
The one year, since I turned 18, that I didn’t enjoy voting was the year I traveled out of the country and had to vote absentee by mail. It was a chore; it felt like filling out insurance forms. But I like to vote, and my friends like to vote, too, and we all say that what we truly like about it -- the source of that jolt we feel -- is the experience of walking or driving or biking to and back from the polls amid the day’s stream of voters. The act infuses us with a civic-mindedness -- brief but very tangible -- that many of us experience far too rarely.
If a vote-by-mail initiative appears on the next California ballot, I’ll vote against it, because democracy deserves election rituals more exciting than putting a stamp on an envelope or hitting “Enter.” It deserves a party.