As I write this, I can hear the soft beep of an electronic polling station recording votes in a room next door. The beeps are frequently drowned out by loud greetings between neighbors. Deep laughter and high-pitched giggles ensue as folks reconnect in line at the polls. News about grandkids seems to be a favorite topic. Physical ailments keep coming up. There was a competitive tone to the conversation of two women who were comparing hip replacement surgeries. Only one disagreement has erupted when someone didn’t show up on the rolls. Most of the commentary is lighthearted and matter of fact.
I am curious to know if the topics will change as the day goes on and blue-collar workers and young moms with kids in tow replace the parade of seniors that dominated the morning rush. One fellow answering his cell phone loudly right outside my office was repeatedly trying to tell the caller that he was “at the voting place”. He sounded proud to be casting his ballot and aggravated that the person on the other end did not appreciate the significance of this morning errand.
Hurricane Sandy spared much of the Philadelphia neighborhood where I work, but the storm did manage to delay delivery of the voting machines. When they did finally arrive, they were stashed in an empty corner of a long porch that overlooks a courtyard on the parish grounds. We have been using the enclosed porch to store donated furniture until volunteers can move it to other parts of the new outreach center being developed in the former convent. The two machines sat there amid the donations for three days. Each time I walked by them I couldn’t help but think that democracy is a strange and wonderful thing.
Preparations for hosting the polling station included not only moving those donations out of the way, but also ensuring that there was toilet paper in the bathrooms and space for the ballot posters to be displayed. We shifted tables from the Hispanic Community Room on the second floor to the first floor for the poll monitors. I was still running around late Monday evening trying to find extension cords for the machines and space heaters to keep voters comfortable in line. I agreed to take the second shift of staffing the building on Election Day so I was not the one arriving at 5:30AM to open the gates and the porch for the poll workers.
For seventeen months the country has watched hundreds of campaign commercials and seen thousands of candidate signs online, along highways, and in yards or windows. We have listened to the stump speeches and watched the debates. Even those not schooled in statistics have come to understand the meaning of “margin of error” after being inundated with sophisticated polling results. And yet today, the billion dollars of campaign advertising spent on the 2012 election give way to individual voices and individual votes.
As Alexis de Tocqueville remarked about his visit to America, “Democracy doesn’t give people the most competent government, but it does what the most competent government is often powerless to do. It spreads throughout the entire social body a restless activity, a superabundant strength, an energy that never exists without it.” The commercialization of our sacred right to vote can make it easy to forget how much we depend on the collective energy of a diverse nation to maintain self-governance. People have lost their lives for this right. Others have gone to prison to secure it. Because of their sacrifice, some South Philly neighbors are able to chat calmly about the weather while in line. Once their vote is cast, they are free to discuss the best home remedies for arthritis. I hope to remember this energy—and the strength it brings—long after the voting machines are carted away.