Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Voting Early

Some three decades ago, a friend me a story about her novitiate. One day all the sisters were given a “day off” from regular convent routine.  Before going on their outing, that morning she recited the entire day’s Office (since the Sisters wouldn’t be reciting it together). Including Compline, I asked kiddingly? Yes, she answered. Even the Examination of Conscience, I asked? Yes, she said, since she knew already in advance what sins she would likely commit during the day!

To me, Early Voting (which began today in Tennessee and started even earlier in some other states) is a bit like that. Enough potential voters (almost all of them, if the polls are to be believed) have already made up their mind that for most Americans the election might just as well be held today. Even so (as David Brooks observed recently), there certainly seems something strange about casting one’s vote before even the 1st Presidential Debate has taken place. It does seem to make the whole campaign/election process seem somewhat … ridiculous.

To me, voting has always been primarily a symbolic civic ritual, which signifies a connection with and participation in the larger society, both national and local. Perhaps, I picked that up in elementary school civic class. Probably even more influential, however, was growing up watching my parents go to the polls on crisp autumn days – first, to register (back then when one had to register every time one planned to vote) and, later, to vote. Members of the “Greatest Generation,” my parents set a good example faithfully voting in every election. Rational Choice theoretical models that argue for the “irrationality” of voting notwithstanding, to my mind voting has always been mainly about participating in the process, bonding with my fellow-citizens, and adding legitimacy to whichever party gets the mandate to govern – all important things!

But what about Early Voting? Can the symbolic resonance of participating in the electoral process survive being reduced to what seems like yet another convenience-store transaction? Of course, there can be good reasons for taking advantage of the convenience of Early Voting. Still, as with anything else that has - or once had - a communitarian context and significance, when we align the civic ritual of voting with individual timetables rather than a common calendar, do we perhaps run the risk of losing even more of what little we have left of a once vibrant civic culture?

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