Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Behind the Gray Curtain

                       Today is Election Day in the U.S., the second Tuesday in November. Today, I will go to my polling place at my daughter’s elementary school and cast my ballot on an electronic screen. But my first memories of Election Day are from my childhood. The big, gray metal voting booths arrived at our local mall. I stood in line with my Mama, and then a polling place worker pulled the gray curtain back for us to enter the machine. We stood, facing, a panel listing all the candidates’ names along with various propositions and amendments. Mama would let me pull the silver levers next to her selections. I felt so important. That night, after the polls closed, the local and national news anchors reported the results on TV, usually interrupting a show I wanted to see.
            Now the results run across the bottom of the screen, with only occasional break-ins by reporters for results in important or close races. And we don’t have to wait for nightfall for the results. Numbers are tallied quickly; races called with the sun still shining and polls still open in the West. Of course, the year of the hanging chad controversy, the counting dragged on and on…
            I remember a year when I stood in a line that wrapped in concentric circles around a gym floor. The hour was late, almost closing time for the polls. The results were mostly decided, according to the news media. Rain fell outside in the dark. But when 7:00 pm came and the workers closed the doors, everyone inside stayed to cast their votes. We considered it a right and a privilege as Americans. Yet, the U.S. has a low voter turn-out compared to other countries. A table provided by George Mason University lists the national turn-out in the 2012 election, a Presidential election year, at 58.2%. In 2010, the number was only 41%.  Fifty-eight countries have higher voter turn-outs. Uruguay tops the list with over 96% in 2009. France had a turn-out of over 71% in 2012 and our neighbor to the south, Mexico, turned-out over 64% that same year. Australia has the highest percentage, 93%, of voter turn-out in the Western World with Belgium, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Greece, Germany, Japan, U.K, Canada, Portugal, and South Korea joining the Aussies with higher turn-out percentages than the U.S.
            Sometimes I do feel apathetic about voting. I live in a state that is always going to go for one certain party for President. Does my vote even count if I vote for the other party’s candidate? That’s why I’m for abolishing the Electoral College. This system for electing the president was implemented over popular vote, because the Framers of the Constitution feared that without sufficient information about candidates from outside their State, people would only vote for a home-boy. They were also concerned that, with a popular vote, no one candidate would have a majority sufficient to govern the whole country. The concern that the largest, most populous states would always choose the President, giving the smaller states no voice was a paramount issue. But in our Information Age, available knowledge about a candidate is not an issue; neither are regional loyalties.  And now candidates focus on campaigning in the swing states with the most electoral votes. With a popular vote, candidates would campaign everywhere – a voter from Maine or Alaska would be just as important as one who lives in New York or California.  Of course changing the process would require a Constitutional Amendment.
            Voter apathy in this country is also tied to the increasing evidence that our government is inefficient at best and non-functioning at worst. The recent shut-down in which a small faction of one party paralyzed the workings of our government is evidence of how broken our system is. Grandstanding for your political clout, your career, your 15 minutes of fame, replaced sensible compromise. Moderates in both parties have been silenced by those espousing extremist views on both sides. But the Tea Party screams the loudest of all.  
            I’m a member of a Protestant denomination that expressed a belief in separation of church and state at its founding and has reaffirmed that belief through resolutions throughout the years. Yet I hear in my church and coming from the mouths of so many who label themselves follows of Christ, that if you do not vote for the candidates of one certain party, you aren’t “right” with the Lord – pun intended. My reading of the Gospels reveals a Jesus who talked more about getting your own life “right” than right-wing or left-wing politics.
            In that regard, I also think our nation needs more than two parties. Our system is the exception in the world, not the norm. Belgium has 7 effective political parties. France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Japan, Greece, South Korea, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada and the U.K all have more parties than the U.S.  The U.K. has 3 main parties and a number of smaller parties that work together and form coalitions to govern, reducing the dominance of any one party within that coalition. Compromise and moderation are required for a functioning government. But a functioning government is not a priority for many politicians in this country who only want to ram their points-of-view down everyone else’s throats.
            Still, I will go to the polls today to try to make my voice heard. I will vote. If I don’t, do I have any right to complain about the results? 

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton

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