Column: Vote, even if it’s terrible now

Jason-Column2I was always attuned to the democratic process.

If you want that as a pick-up line, it’s yours.

When I was a kid, voting was a big deal to me. I couldn’t wait to be old enough to do it. There was a mystique about that big, gray machine. What went on in there? What would I do when I got in there? How cool would it be to actually vote?

I can’t imagine any kids think that now.

The first presidential election I remember being aware of was in 1980, Jimmy Carter versus Ronald Reagan.

And John Anderson. Can’t forget John Anderson.

I remember my parents voting, though I don’t remember for whom, but what I really remember was the sample ballot sheet. Not sure if it was that presidential election or the next one, when President Reagan went for a second go against Walter Mondale, but, for one of those, I remember riding in the car somewhere on Election Day after my parents voted with the sample ballot sheet spread across my lap in the back seat. I used that sheet to pretend to vote. I was either five or nine at the time. Either way, all the party lines and little levers printed on the sheet both fascinated and called to me. I couldn’t wait to vote.

I had few friends as a kid. Have I mentioned that?

Eventually, I got to see the process in action. I got to go behind the curtain with one of my parents, maybe both actually, and see the voting take place. I distinctly recall the sheet had not prepared me for what I witnessed.

Wait, you have to throw this big lever, then you vote? Or you vote, then you throw the lever? And, wow, there are a lot more little levers than it seemed like there would be on the sample sheet. And why is everything so high?

Eventually I got my shot. Eventually.

My birthday is in late November. I turned 18 in 1992, about 20 days after Election Day that year. So, I got to stand around while my friends and my girlfriend—girlfriend, got to get that in there—pulled for either Bush, Clinton or, knowing disaffected youth as I do now, most likely Ross Perot. I’d get my first chance to vote in 1993, I cast my first presidential ballot in 1996.

Once I got in the booth, I have to say, it was the special experience I hoped it would be. It was just you and the levers in there. No matter what was said outside the curtain, no one knew what you were going to do or why once you got behind it. The only thing we all knew about each other in those days was we were, each of us, standing at a big machine behind a little curtain and, in that intimate privacy, helping decide what was going to happen next.

Now we stand around like it’s the DMV and try to avoid eye contact.

In 2010, Westchester County finally gave in to the guidelines of the Help America Vote Act, which was signed into law in 2002 by President Bush following the cascade of controversy that put him in a position to do such a thing in the first place. Part of the law ordered all punch card and lever machine voting systems be replaced by something more modern and, ostensibly, accurate.

I’ll give you the punch cards.
Westchester was one of several New York counties that held out, trying to keep the near century-old lever machine technology in place, but made the switch in time for President Obama’s first midterm after the Justice Department threatened to sue the state in 2006.

And so, the last three elections, I’ve gone to my elementary school gym—where they’ve clearly lowered the basketball hoops—signed in, and then stood at one of two or three rickety card tables with a couple Dungeon Master’s screens on it and filled in a card I thought I’d never see again after the MATs. I get to stand there, bent over with my arm around the thing, trying to affect some measure of privacy while the race is on to see if I can fill out all the little circles before my back seizes.

Oh, the ballot initiatives are on the back? I hate this.

The lever machines were mechanical; they were satisfying. You go in, pull the little levers and then throw the big one. Boom! Vote.

Now, I have to hand my Scantron or whatever it is to someone whose investment in my privacy and the accuracy of my vote evaporated round about the time the donuts ran out.

Like a lot of things, voting is not like it used to be. And like a lot of those other things, it’s worse.

Maybe even worse than you’ve thought.

See, back when we were all in that magical, mechanical booth, we brought our politics in with us, we pulled the appropriate levers, and we left our politics there. My parents taught me never to ask someone for whom they voted; they didn’t even tell me when I was a kid. I think those old machines were a metaphor for how we should conduct our politics.

The new way is a metaphor, too.

We stand there, out in the open, exposed to everyone else’s vote, everyone else’s possibly prying eyes. We look around the elementary school gym and size each other up, not just in terms of the other person’s vote, but, now, in the way they do it. We have to wait for a spot at one of the rickety card tables; do we risk the social ire of everyone else—and the vengeance of our sciatica—by using the lower, handicapped station and getting the heck out of there? After all, we want to be home in time to see what all our friends and family think this Election Day. We want to scroll Facebook and Twitter to shake our heads at how completely whacked our virtual acquaintances’ politics are.

This is what we do now. We live with everything out in the open. So why not vote that way?

Because it’s not Facebook, it’s helping decide what happens next.

Reach Jason at jason@hometwn.com
or, ironically, follow him on Twitter @jasonchirevas