Shawn Vestal: what have we lost in drive for election efficiency?
For decades, Colleen Schauble showed up every Election Day at Longfellow Elementary School very early in the morning, and left late at night.
She’d welcome and direct voters, check registrations, help them cast their ballots. Longfellow was the polling place for four precincts – including Schauble’s, which was for years identified not by number but by name: Edith.
“It was wonderful,” said Schauble, 73. “You practically knew every voter by name.”
Then she, and the other workers there, would count the ballots, secure them, and carry them – in pairs, always – to the county courthouse for the overall tally, which could easily stretch late into the night.
Remember those days? When voting on Election Day – especially an Election Day such as this, with a close and heated presidential contest – was full of weight and portent? When your act as a citizen was closely connected, in time and space, with every other voter’s act? The whole process concentrated into a day?
We’ve left that behind, here in Washington. Our elections are faster, more efficient, more impersonal, and I kind of hate them. Of course, finding out who wins is still the main draw, but in every other way, Election Days are pale anti-climaxes.
There are all sorts of reasons for the shift to vote-by-mail, and most of them are good ones. But there was also intangible civic virtue in traveling to a polling place to vote, virtue that our mail-in system simply cannot match.
“I miss the polling places,” said Darlene Wagner, 77, who worked the polls in Four Lakes, Medical Lake and Cheney over 25 years. “I miss the association with people.”
Me, too. Problems at the polls in Ohio and Florida are good reminders that there are issues with the in-person model, for sure. But I remember standing in a long line in 1992 outside a Coeur d’Alene elementary school, in the darkening early evening, waiting to cast a ballot in Bush I v. Clinton (v. Perot). It was a record turnout in Kootenai County – eight out of 10 voters showed up. It was a pain in the neck, it was probably cold out, and there was an intangible note of a tense political moment in the air, that sense that we often develop during elections that this time it’s more crucial or important or divisive or worse than it’s ever been before and so now, this moment, is vital and these choices are momentous – all that was rippling under the artificial calm of our shared space, our annoyance at the long wait, and it’s been a long time now, but I want to say it was … great.
Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe that’s all false memory and nostalgic poesy. But will anyone ever feel that way about sticking a ballot in the mail? Is there enough false memory and nostalgic poesy in the whole universe to cast a warm glow on voting by yourself, at the moment of maximum convenience within a two-week span? Even if you post something about it on Facebook?
Idahoans still go to the polls, but here in Washington, we’ve been easing away from polling places for years. Spokane County went all-mail for the 2008 presidential election. We grew toward vote-by-mail gradually and organically. As voters were given the option to choose between voting by mail and going to the polls, the mailbox simply defeated the ballot box: More voters participated overall, and a growing number choose to skip the polling place with each subsequent election. When you examine the various measures of an election – voter turnout, participation rates, reliability – the current system is, as elections officials argue, probably far superior.
But in the entirely unmeasurable arena of community – the sense of common purpose, face-to-face engagement and our understanding that we live in a place that is shared across our divisions – the loss of the polling place feels serious. There is a widespread retreat from the idea of a public square; we are cloistered in our nunneries, heeding our gospels, blocking all incoming signals. Maybe if we stood in annoying lines with each other a bit more, or side by side with archaic pencil and paper, in churches and schools, in gymnasiums and auditoriums, seeing the same smiling faces at the registration table every couple of years, the benefit would be worth the cost.
This is entirely fanciful. Those days are gone. But here’s something interesting: When I asked Schauble and Wagner whether there was still any Election Day thrill left for them, they were quick to say yes, though their duties at the elections center are now much different.
“Oh yes – it’s still there,” Wagner said. “There’s still that excitement.”
“We’re choosing our leaders,” she said. “That’s a big responsibility. It’s neat to see people come out and show they have love of country.”
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.