Early voting began today in Georgia. On Memorial Drive at Northern Avenue, the intersection near DeKalb County’s early voting site was crowded with people waving signs in support of various causes and candidates. It was somehow reassuring to experience political expression in bright colors, held by anonymous neighbors, without having to endure more spoken words. The harsh words of this campaign season – this seemingly endless campaign season – seem to have deadened part of my civic spirit. I had always looked forward to election day as if it were a kind of autumn festival – a rite of passage into a fresh new chapter of the American experiment in self-government. Not this year. I just want to get it over with.
Typically, it is African Americans who take advantage of early voting more so than whites. One could speculate as to the reasons for this. Perhaps it is the coincidence of race and class, with working people less able to control their own schedules, and so more eager to vote at a time that is convenient for them. But the reason I hear most often is that people of color are more aware of the history of disenfranchisement in this country. They have far more experience than whites in being turned away from polling places. Early voting at least could expose problems early on, before the day the votes are actually counted, when it would be too late to correct any errors.
I have never been afraid that I would be turned away from the polls. And getting to the polling place has not been a problem. Even when I started my work day as a teacher at 7:00 am and worked until after 6:00 pm, I didn’t have any real trouble finding time to vote. But today I cast my ballot early for the first time in my life. This year, there is no excited anticipation of election day. I wish this brutal presidential campaign was over.
It is a shame that the presidential race always garners more attention than the many other issues decided in a typical November election. Some of these issues are important. This year, Georgia voters will get to decide whether to allow the state the power to take over schools that it deems to be “failing.” The schools would fall under the governance of an unelected state board that might then turn over operations – and children’s fate – to for-profit companies based out of state. But no one really knows. The constitutional amendment on the ballot doesn’t spell out how the state would rescue these “failing” schools. It only calls for granting the state the power to take over schools, seize tax money dedicated to supporting schools, and consequently terminate parents’ ability to control through locally elected school boards the schools in their communities. Of all the ideas that have circulated over the years for improving schools, allowing parents less influence over what goes on in the classroom is the worst approach to education reform I think I have ever heard.
Public participation in civic life is important. So it is disheartening to hear so many people who plan to cast a ballot this year describe their act as a vote against somebody or against something. Surely someone in public life has a vision, a plan for the future that can inspire optimism.
As I left the polling place this morning, I paused to chat with the volunteer who collected my ballot. She told me that she had done election work for over 30 years. And then she told me something I didn’t expect to hear. This year, voter registration is up, and the largest increase has been among older first-time voters – Americans who were alive when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, but who only this year decided to register to vote.
Something is in the air. A familiar rite of passage is upon us and a new chapter of the American experiment is beginning. Are we ready to participate?