This past week, a flier of unknown origin was circulated in Hampton Roads, Virginia, bearing the seal of the state Board of Elections and instructing Democrats that, because of an emergency order of the state General Assembly, they were to vote on November 5… the day after election day. Across the country GOP lawyers are working overtime to erect barriers to keep people from voting, and the McCain campaign and its surrogates have spent weeks smearing ACORN for engaging in the audacious and outrageous act of… registering poor people. That the group submitted 400,000 registrations that were flawed–making the total more like 900,000 than the oft-cited 1.3 million–should not overshadow the fact that it has been part of a much larger and apparently effective drive to expand the electorate. So as we (finally) approach election day, we find ourselves in a familiar situation: the left wants the maximum number of eligible citizens to vote, and the right does not.
Progressives have long stood for a wider franchise that includes the propertyless, women, African-Americans and young adults. The same is not true of conservatives: from Edmund Burke, who worried about the “cruel oppressions” the many have-nots might visit upon the few haves, to activist Paul Weyrich, who admitted in 1980 that “I don’t want everybody to vote…. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
For several decades, starting around 1964, conservatives were winning this battle. Turnout declined from 63 percent in 1960 to just over 51 percent in 2000. Last election we witnessed enough of an increase to detect the rumblings of a reawakening. Now we appear to be in the midst of a full-fledged democratic renaissance. By every measure–from the number of small donors and volunteers to the number of those who cast their votes early–participation is at its highest level in a generation.
Particularly poignant is the role black voters are poised to play as they head to the polls. All across the South, men and women once barred from the ballot–forced to brave dogs, insults and terrorism simply to add their names to the voting rolls–will, on November 4, be able to cast their ballot for an African-American man to be president of the United States. Imagine the emotion of 109-year-old Amanda Jones, whose father was born into slavery, when she voted early this year in Texas.
Along with the ugliness, this election has produced a tremendous number of grace notes: the recent report of employees at an Indiana call center walking out rather than read anti-Obama talking points; the McCain supporters who confronted and shunned an Islamophobe outside a rally (captured on YouTube); and the story (reported on Politico) of how a McCain backer in line to vote early in Hamilton County, Ohio, lent his NASCAR jacket to three elderly Jewish women after overhearing that they would not be allowed to enter the polling place wearing their Obama gear. While chatting with the women, who spoke of the alliance of Jews and blacks during the civil rights struggle, the man was seized with the desire to be on the right side of history; when it was time for him to cast his ballot, he voted for Obama as well.
This last story gets at something profound about why we go to the trouble of voting. We vote in order to change the country, to exercise our rights, to make our voices heard and a hundred other clichés as shopworn as they are true. But we also vote because it places us in direct fellowship with other citizens; we vote because it is a secular sacrament, an act of civic solidarity. Because it is the ultimate declaration that we are, indeed, all in this together.