You know how the campy opening credits for the Colbert Report include a string of words––adjectives, I guess––running down the side of the screen while the camera swoops around Colbert’s condescending pose? The words run by fast, and you can’t usually make them all out, but the last one stays on for a good second or two. This last word has changed over the years; some of my favorites have been “Truthiness” and “Lincolnish” and “Gutly”. This last week, though, the final word has been “Vote.” And maybe it’s the big, sappy, idealistic dork in me, but the first time I saw it I got goosebumps.
“Vote.” Such a simple little word. But every four years it takes on a whole new meaning (every two years if you’re politics junkies like me and J). The word represents a civic right, it truly is “power to the people.” And in the context used by Colbert (this election) and Eminem (in his “Mosh” video last election) and countless others, it’s a noun and a verb and a sentence all in its own. “Vote.” The word is more than an idea––it’s a directive, a mandate.
I love voting. I love going to the little church in my neighborhood and standing in line with people I don’t know and seeing the pollworker check my name off a list. I love standing at the machine (though not nearly as much as I loved the honest-to-god booths we used to have in Massachusetts, with the old-fashioned voting machines where you pushed down the levers and pulled the bar across the bottom to finish your vote) and knowing that I am a tiny little piece of history, that I am playing my part in a process created by men (no women, unfortunately) who probably had never imagined an automobile, let alone a i-phone. What can I say? I’m a dreamer, and voting never fails to make me happy.
So it was with mixed feelings this year when I decided to let go of my sweet little fantasy of going to the polls first thing in the morning with J (our little tradition), waiting in a long line with other excited Obama supporters (I live in a blue blue blue state) and making my (sadly, electronic) mark for the first black man to make a bona fide run for the oval office. Instead, last week I took a deep breath and voted absentee, so that I could spend E-day in Virginia as a vote protector. (My consolation: even thought I don’t get to actually go to my polls, at least I got to cast a paper ballot! Have I mentioned how much I hate electronic voting machines?)
You know those news stories about the “army” of lawyers going to battleground states to defend voting rights? I’m one of them. (Note: as far as I can tell from my training last week, this army of “lawyers” is about 80% law students. Not that it makes a difference for what we’re doing––which definitely isn’t practicing law––but let’s be fair about the facts.)
I’m a little freaked out about this, because I have no idea what to expect. When I signed up I had some romanticized view about sitting alongside poll workers in the polling place, going toe-to-toe with election officials, fighting for the disenfranchised. The reality is that, because I’m not a VA voter, I’m going to be stuck outside, 40 feet from the entrance to the polls, trying my best to spot problems before they happen or get people to try again if they’ve been turned away. If my poll workers are strict about the rules, I won’t even get near them to talk to them if there are problems. I’ve been assigned to a precinct in a heavily Republican district outside of Richmond. I’ve been told that the poll workers could be pretty hostile, and we might have trouble making any kind of an impact. Thirteen hours outside (god, I hope it’s not raining!), presumably trying to get people to stay in line and not give up. And I guess it’s also important to be there so we can call in to the “boiler room” if there are serious problems. Not glamorous, and maybe seriously boring, but at least I’ll know I tried. And I don’t mean to sound self-righteous by telling you all about this, but this is where my heart is right now, and part of the reason I’ve been so absent from blog-world.
It’s two days to E-day. The stakes couldn’t be higher. So, at the risk of being preachy and heavy-handed, I have one word for you, for your friends, for everyone you see on the streets. It’s a noun; it’s a verb. It’s a right, and it’s a mandate. And as we learned in grade school, it’s your civic duty: VOTE.