Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Dance of Democracy

This past Tuesday I went to poll-monitor with Common Cause in a local university polling place that was a contentious site in the 2008 election. Some voters had waited four, five, even six hours. Those most eager to see students vote had expressed concern about possible mismanagement of lines and voter registration books.

I showed up at 6:45 AM, put on my Voter Protection badge, and introduced myself to others gathering to help make democracy work. We cautiously negotiated turf: candidate’s tables there, poll watchers here, all more than the mandated ten feet from the official polling place door down the hall. The line of waiting voters snaked down one hall, past elevator doors, through a lobby and lounge, down another hall.

The building custodian paused to say there had been a line since six. “I showed up here and there was folks sitting by that door. Already. And then more. By six-thirty the line was already over there.”

The poll opened promptly at seven. Announcements made: “You do not need photo ID, but since we don’t know what the law will be for the next election, you may be asked to show ID. It’s not required unless this is your first time voting here.”

I had volunteered because of concerns about photo ID laws and ongoing  miscommunication from state officials. I take voting seriously, as you know if you’ve been reading my recent posts. I’m moved by the history of women who suffered for the right tovote, and saddened at how little we remember of their courage.

And I’m moved by more recent history: I was eight the summer college students Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney were killed by a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob in Meridian, Mississippi, for daring to register black voters. I’ve had the privilege of hearing first-hand the stories of African-Americans who grew up in the grip of segregation, and know people not much older than I am who were the first in their families to vote.  

So there I was, fueled by my daughter’s homemade muffins and an online training session about voter ID law, election staffing, ways to recognize voter intimidation, hotlines to call for any and every question.

I had come expecting to be outside. Standing by the double doors, I could feel the morning chill as men and women dressed for work hurried in, moving fast toward the end of the line. Two men in suits came in, inspected the crowd, shrugged and hurried off to work. A young woman saw the line and smiled: “Four years ago I waited six hours – outside – in the rain. This is nothing.”

My Common Cause colleague and I timed the wait, tracking a distinctive hat as it traveled down the line, disappeared into the voting room at the end of a long hall, then reemerged toward the exit door. Forty-five minutes. No cause for alarm.

The business crowd disappeared and students took their place. First time voters: “Do I need my registration card?” “I didn’t get a card in the mail.” “I registered in Philly. Can I vote here?”

An election official made periodic announcements: “You do not need photo ID. Unless you’re a first time voter.”

I waited for clarification, then offered it myself: “It doesn’t need to be photo ID.” We had information cards explaining the confusing rules.

Packs of students: “Did you vote?” “I will after class.”  “Did you vote?” “I thought they’d give us a sticker!”

Young moms with kids in tow. Election official: “If you see someone whose kid is about to lose it, bring them to the front of the line so they can vote before they leave.”

Older citizens. A set of frail friends: “That line is long for someone 96!” I pushed my way through the line to ask the election official: “Yes, anyone who looks like they can’t stand in line can come to the front. We want them to vote.”

The day settled into routine. Students who weren’t sure of their polling place: my colleague checked his Your Vote app. “Yes, you vote here.” “No, head to the polling site across campus.” “Looks like you’re registered in Pittsburgh. Sorry!”

People emerged from the polling place, smiling.

A woman in line read a text message out loud: “The election official here says I can only bring one child into the voting booth with me. By law. How wrong is that?”

Wrong. I passed on our hot-line phone number: 1-800-OUR VOTE. “They have volunteer lawyers on call. If she calls and tells them her polling place, they’ll call the election official there and ask them to clarify.” 

Through the course of the day, I had time to talk with the others positioned outside the polling place door. The Republican ward chair (or precinct committeeman?) was amused anyone would think his precinct needed observers. “We play nice here.”

His Democratic counterpart was not as amused. She complained at the way the lines were handled four years ago, determined to see things go more smoothly.

Hours after noon, I went out to find some lunch, and came back with a truck-stand falafel and a can of Dr. Pepper. The custodian was taking his break on a couch in the lounge, watching the students come to vote, so I sat down beside him and we chatted while I munched.

“I was here four years ago,” he said. “When we elected President Obama. They were trying to keep the students from voting. But they stood in line anyway.”

He seemed proud: proud to be part of this polling place, proud to be part of this unfolding story.
“And will you go vote?” I knew he’d been at work since six, an hour before the polls opened.

“You know it! When I get off I’ll drive home to Coatesville and go vote. You know it.”

The Republican ward representative had come to join us, resting his feet for a few minutes after standing most of the day. The three of us talked about what we’d do that evening, then the conversation meandered: Where we lived. Where we were from. How long we’d been playing the specific roles we were playing.

“But I know how you roll!” The Republican seemed please with himself.  “Yes – you!” He nodded at me. “What did Pinochio turn into when he went to Pleasure Island?”

I was baffled. Pinochio? “A real boy?”

“No! He became a donkey!”


“You know. A donkey! A Democrat! You’re a Democrat!”

Ah. So he thought he had me pegged.

“Well, really – no. I’m not. I’m a registered independent. And have been. And will be. My ballot this year will be mixed, as usual.”

"So who do you want to win?" 

“What I want,” I said, “is for democracy to work. And I want to make sure the quiet voices in the middle can be heard.”

“Because the solutions are going to come from the quiet voices in the middle.  People who know how to listen.  I want to make sure everyone gets to vote, and I want to make sure the loud voices don’t drown out the rest of us.”

It occurs to me that democracy is like a dance. Step one way, then another. One person moves backward, the other forward. Balance shifts; direction changes. When one person insists on moving only one way, the dance is done. Ugliness ensues. When we move in harmony, in the bright, light tension of a well-executed dance, we all thrive. All of us.

We want the same things. Republican grandson of immigrant Italians, Democrat great-grandson of former slaves, Independent grey-haired mash-up of Mediterranean, Scandinavian, Old World, New World, farmers, builders, preachers, dreamers, wanderers . . . 

We want the same things. We hope the same things. Opportunity for our sons and daughters, provision for our nearing old age, clean air and water, safe roads and bridges, peace in our homes, our communities, our world. 

We sat there, me sipping the last of my Dr. Pepper, enjoying a warm, sun-filled public space and that sense of being part of something large. Fellow citizens, fellow workers, content to play our separate parts in this dance we call democracy.

A few days before the election, I came across the poem written for the 2008 inauguration:
Praise Song for the Day, by Elizabeth Alexander. It speaks of the noise that surrounds us, and the importance of words: "whispered or declaimed, words to consider, reconsider.”

This election has been full of words: some wise, many not. Some heard, many unheard. Not all the words said have been considered, by the person saying them, or the person hearing. But at least we’re free to speak. To listen, or not listen. Free to vote, to choose, to take a part in the process, wherever that process leads. 
“Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,
picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.
Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?”

This is the last in a continuing series about faith and politics: 
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