Even as the presidential campaign continues, an estimated 6 million Americans in 27 states have already voted. Early voting is now a fact of electoral life. I will not be joining in the habit, however—and I urge you not to do so, either.
Voting early is akin to boxing referees declaring one fighter the winner on points halfway through the bout—not knowing that a knockout punch was on its way. It may be hard to imagine what revelation about the candidates, at this point, would make much of a difference. But history has demonstrated such possibilities. Consider the last-minute news in 2000 about George W. Bush’s decades-old DUI conviction. Or what if early voting had been underway prior to the Kennedy-Nixon debate, the first ever televised? And of course, serious health events might affect either of the two elderly presidential candidates, as Donald Trump’s bout with Covid-19 has made clear. We could soon find ourselves effectively choosing between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris.
But just as important as these concerns is how early, absentee, and mail-in voting will undermine the social fabric of our neighborhoods. Polling places are more than just a place to vote. They are civic spaces, not just forums for resolving political disputes but places to meet and greet, to renew acquaintances, and to ask about friends and family. In my own experience, these encounters are rich in drama and community.
For many years, I ran for local office in Brookline, Massachusetts. Elections included those for the local governing body, the representative New England Town Meeting: 15 town meeting members from each of 16 precincts. Local issues were hotly contested, and competition for the seats could be spirited.
From dawn to dusk, those of us running in Precinct Six stood outside the doors to the town gym and greeted voters. “Please remember me. Number 2 on the ballot.” Inevitably, we contestants talked among ourselves, as did the representatives of state and national campaigns. I can’t say that we always worked out compromises—but we certainly understood one another’s positions better and found ways to be civil, even friendly.
The real excitement would come at the end of the long, often cold day outside. We cast our ballots on those mechanical-voting devices; you flicked small levers in boxes marking your candidates of choice, then pulled a larger lever, which recorded your vote and opened the curtain behind which you had been deliberating. A satisfying ka-ching sound ensued. You had no doubt that your vote had been tallied. Then, just after 8 p.m., the poll wardens—friendly, elderly Election Day workers from the neighborhood—began counting votes. They turned all the voting machines around, and there, on the back of each, were recorded the vote totals for each candidate. It didn’t take long to add up the totals from the four or five machines. For some of us, it was three more years debating and voting on the town budget in the high school auditorium. For others, it was sudden death. I won once by a single vote.
The hundreds of thousands of polling sites in the U.S. allow such dramas to play out across the country. It’s an experience that early voting simply cannot replicate. Harvard’s Robert D. Putnam has just released an updated version of his classic volume Bowling Alone, which chronicles the decline of civic life in America. He ought to add a new chapter to his litany and call it “Voting Alone.” For my part, I’ll keep waiting in line at the firehouse.
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