The community virtues of voting in person

This post appeared at MinnPost on February 13, 2019.

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 sontract 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?

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 trendlines 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.  (No, the Super Bowl doesn’t count.)  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 Senator 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 there.  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.