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Column: That Sacred Moment in the Voting Booth

Christopher Pellegrino, 12, of Bethel, looks over his mother Julia's shoulder at her ballot on Election Day.
(Valley News - Ryan Dorgan)

Christopher Pellegrino, 12, of Bethel, looks over his mother Julia's shoulder at her ballot on Election Day. (Valley News - Ryan Dorgan)

In the two weeks since Election Day most of the colorful signs have disappeared from yards, and the television ads are once again hawking cars and anti-depressants. Whether your candidates lost or won, there’s a temptation to be cynical about the money that has been spent and the behaviors you have witnessed because there is something absurd about a process where anonymous voices try to influence your vote by reducing complex truths to stark phrases ripped from context. No matter how smart you think you are, there are times when you wonder if you have been duped.

Still, my restless mind won’t let go of the images of citizens across the country streaming to the polls, often to stand in long lines to vote. Whether the delays were caused by Superstorm Sandy or bureaucratic ineptitude or by the Herculean efforts of Republicans and Democrats to turn out the vote, I’ll never know for sure; but the real point is that so many people stayed in line for their turn. Their patience seems transcendent and their determination heroic.

If you vote, you understand that solemn moment when you take your ballot in hand or close the curtain behind you and face the voting machine, and everything that has happened to that point disappears. The word “vote” comes from the Latin word votum, for “vow”, and for an instant you are participating in a sacred ritual. At this moment, every voter understands on some level the difference between politics and voting, and understands how deeply personal a vote can be.

My wife and I voted in the Strafford Town House, a majestic building that was framed at the end of the 18th century. After casting our ballots, we took our turn for the next two hours checking in voters, L-Z, at the doorway. It wasn’t hard work: every few minutes we’d hear the creak of the ancient door and feel a rush of crisp air, and a voter, or more often two at once, would come in and begin the process. A few were so young they may have been voting for the first time, but most were experienced. Some were breathless from the long, uphill climb to the town house, and a few had to be helped to the voting stations. Old or young, hale or weakened, everyone could complete the ritual in a few minutes. The pace was so relaxed my wife knitted a few rows on a new scarf, and I jotted notes for a class I would teach the following day.

At roughly the same time our children were voting in New York City. Our son and his girlfriend voted before work, at a technical high school in Brooklyn that had been undamaged by the storm. They had to wait an hour and a half in line with people like them who were tired and irritated because their workplaces or homes had been flooded or darkened by the storm. Across the river in Manhattan, our daughter and her husband left work in the afternoon to vote, and because the schools in the city were closed for the day, they decided to take their sons along for a lesson in civics. For three hours they stood in line at a midtown church, long enough to fray the patience of boys and long enough for a pair of physicians to wonder if they were spending their time wisely. But they persisted, and that night their older son stayed up to 9 to watch the early results.

Why do people take voting so seriously, especially at the end of a long campaign in which all the candidates have tried their patience? I think it is because they recognize that voting is a sacred experience. More than a privilege, more than a right, it is an expression of self that is never clearer than when they cast a ballot for a candidate they know has no hope of winning.

My first presidential election was in 1968, back when you had to be 21 to participate. It was a year of deep disappointment for me with two assassinations and a national convention that devolved into chaos, but it was also the year my wife and I married. When my party didn’t select the candidate I liked, I considered sitting out the election; but when the day arrived, I voted. Four years later, I voted for Shirley Chisholm, the first major-party black candidate for president, by writing her name in on my ballot. At the time our daughter had just started to walk, and we were sharing a house with 10 black and Latino students who were attending the high school where I taught. Chisholm had tried for the nomination and lost, but voting for her was what felt right to me. Nearly every voter who cast a ballot this year has a story like this. For some it’s a long history that includes both lost causes and triumphs, and for others it’s the opening chapter of what will be a long book.

Most of my candidates won in this year’s election, so I have reason to be happy. I can’t say I have often felt this way. Now that the lights on the scoreboard have gone out, it’s not the result I cherish so much as the process. When you cast your vote, you are absolutely alone and free. Rich or poor, hopeful or despondent, old or young, you partake in a ritual where you are, for an instant, truly equal. The opinions of experts, the pressure from relatives or partners, the fallout from Citizens United, all melt away; and for a moment you are the most important person in the world.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.