September 26th, 2020
“Why would an economist be embarrassed to be seen at a voting booth? Because voting exacts a cost–in time, effort, lost productivity–with no discernible payoff except perhaps some vague sense of having done your ‘civic duty’. As the economist Patricia Funk wrote in a recent paper, ‘A rational individual should abstain from voting’.”
from Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
A ballot is a strange thing.
On the one hand, it is only a piece of paper, just like the thousands of other pieces that flood my mailbox over the course of a year. On the other hand, it is a legal document, and it is my one and only way to choose the people who will represent me in our government. A ballot carries an enormous amount of emotional baggage. Carl Jung would have probably said that a ballot is “numinous”, that is, “having a strong religious or spiritual quality; indicating or suggesting the presence of a divinity.” A ballot is an integral part of America’s secular religion. Voting is one of our tradition’s sacraments.
Most of us believe in America. That belief can take all sorts of different forms, but we somehow have faith in our democracy. The U.S. Constitution is our sacred text. It’s our Bible, our Koran, our Sutras. We consider our vote to be sacred. We believe that our vote makes a difference and that it counts.
Does it? The authors of the book Freakonomics make it clear that it doesn’t matter, or maybe it just doesn’t matter enough to bother with it. They contend that we would be better off playing the lottery. My vote, lost among millions of other votes in the coming election, will not decide the future of this nation. It can make a difference, but that difference will be infinitesimally small.
I got my ballot in the mail on Thursday morning. I had requested it several days ago. I asked a young woman who is living with us to watch me fill out the ballot (while somehow not noticing who I was voting for), and then watch me place it into the prepaid, pre-addressed envelope that was provided to me. Then I signed the outside of the envelope. She did the same thing, and she also wrote down her home address.
She asked me, “Do I need to print my name on the envelope?”
I told her that I didn’t think so. There was nothing in the instructions to indicate that the poll workers needed her name. However, I took the time to email the city clerk about the matter. A few hours later, I got a reply stating that the witness needed only to sign the envelope and write down their address.
I felt good about completing the ballot. I told Karin what I had done.
Karin looked up from her knitting and asked me, “Can the witness be a felon? The young woman has a felony conviction, and she can’t vote.”
I sent yet another email to the city clerk (I imagine that poor woman spent all her time answering questions from ignorant voters). She replied that the eligibility of a person to vote is of no importance with regards to whether they can act as a witness. Good to know.
I mailed the ballot yesterday morning. That’s done, and now I can consider whether or not it was worth all the trouble. I think that it was worth it. Even knowing that my one vote won’t change the world, I still think that filling out the ballot was of value. Why? Because I believe that my vote counts. It is an act of faith.
Yesterday evening I received an award from Voces de la Frontera for my work with immigrants. I have spent the last few years teaching the citizenship class, and the people at Voces decided to recognize my efforts. I really didn’t want the award. I don’t teach the class because I might get a pat on the back. I do it because I want to help people to become Americans. I feel good doing that. I like it.
I got the award during Voces’ gala. The gala is the organization’s annual fund raiser, and it is usually a party as well. This year, due to the pandemic, Voces de la Frontera put on a virtual gala. That was pretty weird. The event was about as festive and spontaneous as a space shuttle launch, but what else could Voces do? The organizers had it completely scripted, and I was scheduled to receive my award at exactly 6:26 PM. Actually, I received it a couple minutes later due to the fact the Mandela Barnes, the Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin, called to say a few words of political propaganda during the program. In any case, when my moment came, I stood up, was presented with a framed piece of paper, and told to get moving. I was not allowed to say anything. The show went on.
I showed Karin my award, my new piece of paper. She asked me where I was going to hang it.
I told her, “Downstairs next to the water heater.’
It was probably best that I did not have the opportunity to speak. I would have babbled. I did give the organizers a written copy of what I would have said, if I had been able to do so. It is as follows:
“When I was teaching the citizenship class, I spent a lot of time going over the 100 civics questions that the students need to be able to answer during their interview. The students were usually good at memorizing the approved answers to the questions, and they could spit them back out at me when they needed to do so. However, often the students did not really understand the answers that they were giving to me. I tried to go deeper into the questions and answers, because I really wanted these people to know what America is all about.
One of the questions asks the student how they, as citizens, can participate in their democracy. There are multiple answers to that particular question. A citizen can run for office, write a letter to a newspaper, join a political campaign, or call their elected officials to bitch. I would discuss these options with the students.
Then I would ask them:
‘What is the most important way you can participate?’
Usually they knew what I wanted to hear. They would say to me, ‘Vote?’
I’d tell them, ‘If somebody wants to tell me their political opinion, but they don’t bother to vote, I don’t listen to them. Voting is the minimum requirement. We don’t have to do a lot for the country; just pay taxes and be on a jury maybe. So, we can at least vote. We can do that much.’
They would nod their heads. I would tell that I want them to be involved citizens.
They are choosing to be Americans. They want this. They might as well do it right.
I would ask them, ‘Will you do something for me when you are a citizen?’
They would nod again.
‘When you are a citizen, vote. Just vote.’ ”
When I think about it, I have been involved in a patriotic type of religious education. I have been a catechist. I have been teaching these green card holders to trust in our republic. I have been telling them to put their faith in our quirky democracy.
The first line in The Godfather is when Bonasera says to Don Corleone,
“I believe in America.”
What can be more American than The Godfather?