Election ‘Day’? With early voting, it’s more like Election Month.
By Ann Gerhart,
Election Day was when the world stopped for a moment. You changed whatever your daily routine was and went to your local elementary school or church or community center, and you fulfilled your civic responsibility.
You marked your choices with metal levers, not the pad of your finger, and when you gave a hard pull to open the thick curtain cloaking you, that authoritative grind was the sound of your voice being heard, recorded by solid machinery made in America.
One person, one vote, but all together. You had one day to do it.
That day was the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, set by Congress in 1845, with all due deliberation, after sensible debate, as carefully recorded in the Congressional Record and meticulously archived by the Library of Congress.
But now, everything happens on every day of the week. You can shop on Sunday. You can, in fact, shop online seven days a week, 24 hours a day. You can shop while watching streaming video of a Hollywood release on your telephone, in your bed. You can watch college football on a Tuesday night! There’s virtually nothing we cannot make happen at any hour of any day.
So it was inevitable that Election Day would become a relic of community solidarity. This is the year it’s finally, irrefutably, finished.
More than 30 million people have already cast ballots, a record in the early-voting sweepstakes. What’s more, we have a good idea of how they voted, through scrutiny of the party identification of those who showed up in person or returned absentee ballots.
President Obama helped stick a fork in the concept of Election Day a week before Halloween, when he made history as the first U.S. president to vote early, in Chicago. (He was asked for, and produced, ID.)
Two states vote only by mail, the citizens of Oregon and Washington folding and stuffing and stamping alone. In three states — Idaho, South Dakota and Vermont — people have been going to the polls for more than six weeks.
Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia offer a full buffet of options for balloting before Election Day, and this year many of the holdouts have capitulated to the wrath of a hurricane. In New Jersey, you can vote by e-mail.
What was once accepted and celebrated as a unifying American moment has been derided this year as an anachronism smacking of fustiness at best and suppression at worst.
“Pennsylvania’s a weird state” is how Time magazine’s Mark Halperin dismissed voting there, where ballots are cast only in person, only on Election Day.
A nonprofit organization, Why Tuesday?, is devoted to ending “the absurdity of Tuesday” as the day for voting across America and freeing “over 60 million eligible voters [who] are forced to vote only on Tuesday” in 15 states. The host of alternatives is rooted in the noblest of principles: that our democracy would function best if we got as close as possible to 100 percent participation by the citizenry.
But the expansion of choices in time and place and manner of voting also has expanded the litigation over access to the polls — and created plenty of unsettling images of voters waiting hours in line to cast ballots well before Election Day.
There are no longer those rows of stolid machines, their tabs as sturdy as the links in a bicycle chain. The last ones were retired from New York state a few years ago, in compliance with federal laws attempting some congruity across the gloriously idiosyncratic preferences of 51 different sets of elections officials. You want to see one, you’ll have to go to the Smithsonian.
Now, the 100 million or so of us who vote in person use “direct electronic recording” machines, the most technologically advanced tabulation system — and the most antiseptic.
One wrong touch and up pops a message that says “error,” which hardly seems to engender trust in a population in which, according to a Pew survey, fewer than 30 percent were confident in 2010 that votes had been counted accurately nationwide.
What remains of that one day of shared civic virtue is this: a jumble of dates and places and methods, voting squeezed in whenever it might suit us, not to be waylaid by the tree that fell on the house or the plumber who must be called or the car that breaks down or the babysitter who doesn’t show or the boss who won’t let you off work.
Time to move on.