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The community virtues of voting in person

REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot
Of Americans who do vote, more should do so in person, in schools and other public locations, rather than geographically separated from fellow citizens via ever-expanding forms of absentee voting.
There has been no shortage of books over the last decade about how Americans are in centrifugal flight from one other.

Journalist Bill Bishop, for instance, in 2009, addressed “why the clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart,” in “The Big Sort.”

The title of Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart,” in 2012, needs no embellishment.

Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids,” in 2015, is often viewed as the left-of-center counterweight to Murray’s right-of-center analysis.

A year later, in 2016, Yuval Levin’s “The Fractured Republic,” aimed at “renewing America’s social contract in the age of individualism.”

And most recently, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, in 2018, wrote “Them,” about “why we hate each other – and how to heal.”

Yet even though all five books are exceptional, with at least two (Murray and Putnam’s) giant sellers, our nation unsurprisingly remains more divvied than is healthy or wise. Other than persuading Amazon to send free copies to everybody, and then make sure they commit every word to memory, what to do?

Mitch Pearlstein
Center of the American Experiment
Mitch Pearlstein

While celebrating that higher proportions of Minnesotans vote than is true nationally, it’s routinely and rightly noted that higher proportions of citizens, in whatever state they live, including Minnesota, should exercise their right to vote. But of Americans who do vote, more should do so in person, in schools and other public locations, rather than geographically separated from fellow citizens via ever-expanding forms of absentee voting. For reasons of poor health, travel, military service and the like, non-polling-place voting, obviously, has its essential place. But it doesn’t warrant as much space as it’s getting and trend lines suggest.

This is the case as voting is not only a fundamental and treasured right, it’s also one of the few truly consequential things large numbers of Americans do together, at specifics times and in common venues. (The Super Bowl counts only barely.) Citizens are more likely to share in a sense of community while fulfilling such a responsibility in the presence of neighbors than by solitarily licking a stamp six weeks beforehand in their kitchen.

In this spirit, I just had lunch with a friend who spoke of how she brings her young children along when she votes so they might begin grasping the sacredness of the democratic exercise.

If I recall correctly, none of the books cited above make any suggestion like this. But of the five, the one that speaks most passionately in an akin language of community is Sen. Sasse’s “Them.” Decidedly, the fact that he grew up in the anti-metropolis of Fremont, Nebraska, and returned with his wife to raise their children there, has much to do with his focus, especially since they seem to be thriving as a family. It’s also relevant that while he’s the only author who holds political office, the first-term Republican may talk less about politics than any in the bunch. Here’s just one passage, in an opening chapter titled “More Politics Can’t Fix This,” in which he speaks of the nation as a whole:

Most Americans just don’t have community cohesion like we used to. We don’t feel like we’re part of something bigger. No longer are parents keeping an eye out on the roving bands of kids, making sure they aren’t up to no good. No longer is the town packing the stands for the game. This isn’t a nostalgia-induced lament that can be condensed to the old adage,”‘You can’t go home again.” Rather, it’s an exploration of why America seems to be tearing apart at the seams.

Back to the virtues of voting in proximity of others. What would need to change?

Overly long lines would need to be eliminated to the greatest extent possible, as they would be dissuading killers. Meaning, staffing at polling places would need to be adequate with technology both up-to-date and functioning.

But as for laws, rules, and regulations, nothing much needs changing, as we have enough of them already. My interest, instead, is in people embracing this proposal on their grass-rooted own. Might an idea like this spark significant changes in our method of voting? Maybe yes, maybe no. Though if it proves only a feel-good step, the question becomes: Isn’t feeling closer to fellow citizens, even for a little while, worthwhile?

Yes, it is.

Mitch Pearlstein is Founder and Senior Fellow for Center of the American Experiment.


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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 02/13/2019 - 11:42 am.

    The principal electoral strategy of the Republican party over the past 50 years has been specifically to divide in order to conquer, by manipulating its political base into believing that the other 2/3 of the citizenry are its enemy and should suffer. Seems to me that ceasing this tactic and beginning to repair the damage would do more to bring the country together than a small-ball pressing for more in-person voting that, just incidentally, would support a larger-ball program to reduce participation of certain voting demographics.

  2. Submitted by Kyle Anderson on 02/13/2019 - 12:50 pm.

    I live in St. Paul and on Election Day I had an all day meeting in the suburbs. Since my wife and I have one car I had to take her to work since I was unable to do my normal bike/transit commute. I also am a half-time student as well. When Election Day becomes a holiday I will vote in person, but for now mail voting allows me to vote and still make it to work/school.

  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/13/2019 - 04:23 pm.

    Coming from the Right, this rings hollow. Actually, it’s complete hypocrisy. I don’t even need to say why. And until the Right gets its own house in order in regard to democracy and access to the ballot box, they really have no authority from which to speak here.

    I’m not sure what it means to “make election day a holiday”. Would it be like Presidents Day or Columbus Day? So it’s just for banks and the federal government, with states and municipalities, etc, choosing whether or not to go along? Because most of us still work on President’s Day. There’s not a snow ball’s chance in hell that the federal government would require it to be a holiday for the private sector. For Pete’s sake, look how many people work on Christmas and Thanksgiving.

    No, if we want to make it easier to vote in person, elections should be held on Saturdays. The bulk of us have the day off already. And since Tuesday was originally chosen because it was the most convenient day to vote for most (white male) voters, moving election day to Saturday is consistent with past practice.

  4. Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/13/2019 - 04:54 pm.

    I would dismiss this as just dishonest tripe, except that the Center for the American Experiment has a long history of advocating for voter supression. Not really surprised to see noted racist Charles Murray quoted here.

    Kind of disappoining to see Minnpost giving space to what is really just a hate group.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/13/2019 - 09:21 pm.

    Well… yes and no. It’s not very often that I agree with anything coming from the alleged think-tank of the Center of the American Experiment, but this is – sort of – an exception.

    For what little it’s worth, I DO prefer voting in person.

    I have voted electronically, and found it wanting. For one thing – and for me, at least, it’s an important thing – there’s no paper record of an electronic ballot. At least, there wasn’t one when I voted electronically in another state about a decade ago. They have since changed their system so that there IS a paper trail, but at the time, one didn’t exist, and I was more than a little uncomfortable with that fact.

    I’ve also voted by mail, and while it’s easy and convenient, it also lacks a certain something – maybe the feeling of civic engagement that Mr. Pearlstein values. I value it, as well, and while i could easily procure an absentee ballot and do all my voting from home, I still prefer the half-mile walk to my polling place, marking the ballot in those surprisingly flimsy voting enclosures, feeding it into the machine, and getting an idea of how many people have voted by the time I cast my ballot. In another decade, when my knees have failed completely and a half-mile walk seems out of the question, I may prefer voting by mail simply because of physical limitations, but for now, at least, voting is one of those things, specifically because it involves strangers coming together to pass judgment, of a sort, on policies and people in government, that seems to me part of the essence of democratic government. Yes, we could all do the same thing(s) at home at the kitchen table or on the living room couch, but voting in person provides a kind of visual reinforcement, I think, that my vote counts as much as the next person’s, and your vote counts as much as mine.

    I do agree that limiting the actual USE of the right to vote guaranteed by the Constitution has been a signature effort of the Republican Party for quite a few years, and institutions like the CoAE have done their best to enhance and expand those limitations, but even their (usually unstated) deplorable motivations don’t negate the benefit of a community coming together, in a sense, to settle on their collective judgment of a candidate or a policy, or both. I can vote by mail, and there may be circumstances that require it, so I’m glad that it’s an available option, but overall, I’d rather go to a polling place and vote in person.

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