OPINION: In-person voting was a reassuring, unifying ritual

Once upon a time, in-person voting was one of democracy's most celebrated rituals. Nowadays, it's considered old-fashioned and inconvenient.

I dropped my primary ballot in the mail today.

Talk about an anti-climax.

It was the first time that I’ve bought postage stamps in forever. Since when did it cost half-a-buck to mail an envelope?

My first reaction was surprise, followed by disbelief and then anger.

Why should it cost me 50 cents to vote? That was free once upon a time, as I recall.

And that’s just one of the reasons why voting by mail ain’t really voting.

Back in the good old days (by that, I mean the 1950s and 1960s – yes, I am older than dirt), voting wasn’t just a civic duty and a privilege. It was a ritual.

On Election Day, we would get up bright and early in the morning. We’d read the newspaper or listen to the radio to catch up on any last minute scandal that might have broken overnight. TV news wasn’t 24/7 back then, thank goodness. Then it was off to the polls.

Regardless of the weather, traffic was always light. That was because most businesses were closed for the election; those few that stayed open would stagger their shifts to ensure that employees got at least a couple hours off to vote.

Not that anyone needed to drive to vote. There was a polling place on practically every corner. Temporary voting booths were set up in schools (the kids were off for the day), churches (religion was still constitutional then) and nearly every other public location.

That was one of the things that we definitely did better back in the good old days. There were so many polling places that no one stood in line very long to vote in even the most crowded neighborhoods.

On the way to those nearby polls, there was still time for some public-spirited, last-minute debate about who was the best candidate and who was a bum. Most of that jawing was good-natured.

At the polling place, one of our neighbors who had volunteered to be a precinct worker would greet us. After some small talk and a little gossip, they would check the local voter rolls (hard copy, of course) to make sure that our registration was kosher. Then it was into the booth with our ballot. Out we came quickly, they stuck an “I Voted!” sticker on our shirts or blouses and off we went to await results.

There was nothing else to do but await results. Everything was closed. Bars and saloons were shut especially tight. Even grocery stores couldn’t sell beer until after the polls closed. Election Day was one of the few times that we might see a neighbor, friend or relative stone cold sober.

We waited for the results together, crowded around a radio or a cabinet television half the size of a boat. The results took forever to compile because everything was done by hand. We waited together, just as we had voted together. And somehow being together that way made the election process unifying and reassuring, even when our candidate didn’t win.

But there’s nothing reassuring about voting by mail nowadays. It’s a cold, solitary process. Just fill in the little circles, stuff your ballot in the envelope and toss it in the mail.

That good-natured, public-spirited debate of yesteryear is gone, replaced by internet trolls who are deadly serious about attacking anyone with an idea, much less an opinion.

Without any unifying ritual, is it any wonder that we never stop griping about the results of the last election?

Please spare me all the lip-service about how convenient it is to vote by mail. It still feels like you’ve just done something — by yourself in a dark corner — that should have been done in the light of day and in the company of friends or a significant other.

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4 Comments

  • AH June 14, 2020 at 4:18 pm Reply

    Best! Opinion! Piece! Ever! Thank you for a small reminder of how simple life was and just how complicated and impersonal we’ve made it!

  • Herm Olsen June 14, 2020 at 9:01 pm Reply

    Charlie, that’s the first thing you’ve said in forever with which I agree. There is something special about in-person voting. But I know there is also some downsides: Public money is a public trust. Vote-by-mail has saved the City, the County and the State tens of thousands of dollars. Sure – we have to spring 50 cents to mail. But given mileage costs, it is actually cheaper to vote by mail than to fire up ol’ Bessie and drive to the polling place. For you and I, we still have the capacity to physically go vote. But for inbound folks, mail is the only ball game in town. Physical capacity shouldn’t be a disqualifier to hear the voices of those folks too infirm to get out to the voting booth. Finally, voting by mail allows many thousands more to participate in the democratic process. Voting percentages elevated significantly when we vote by mail. The voice of the people grows louder and stronger with vote-by-mail – while the whimpering complaints of spending 50 cents will be lost to the dustbin of ancient days.

    • anon June 14, 2020 at 10:11 pm Reply

      You realize that voting-by-mail has ALWAYS been an option to those who cannot physically go out to vote. It’s a simple request, by phone, by the person wishing to vote-by-mail 🤷🏻‍♀️

  • Hope Mylroie June 14, 2020 at 9:47 pm Reply

    I still like voting In person!! It is more personable to chat with friends and visit with those you know!! No cheating allowed!!! We can always offer to pick up older people that can’t drive!! Would love to do this!!

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