"I Want to Be a Part of It. . . "

November 9, 2006Posted by Jay Livingston
“Who voted?” I asked in class today. One student. And this was in New Jersey where the race for Senate looked to be close enough that your vote might have made a difference. One. The others were too busy.

I voted. I live in New York, where none of the races was going to be close. I knew my vote didn’t mean a thing. But I voted. I wonder why. Not out of civic duty or a belief that my vote will influence policy or any of those other reasons you learn in school.

Why do I vote, I asked myself. Then I remembered that “why” is the wrong question. Start with the other “reporter’s” questions – who, what, where, when, how. Get good answers to those, and you’ll be much closer to answering why.

What do I do when I vote; where and how do I do it?

I live in New York City. In my precinct, you vote an old building in a drab room with dull lighting and a coffee-stained linoleum floor. Usually, people are waiting in line, most of them people you’ve never seen, but you chat and joke with them. The voting booths and machines are the old kind with a curtain —an old piece of canvas that if you thought about or looked at closely you wouldn’t want to spend too much time touching. Inside the both is the machine. You push the big lever to the right, then you flip down the little levers beside the candidates’ names, then you pull the lever back to the left, and that’s it.

Every time I do it, I think – and sometimes I make this comment to the person next to me in line– that these are probably the same machines people voted on to elect LaGuardia mayor in 1934.

As I was thinking about this now, I realized that I felt good about this whole scene. I liked it. I liked the dirty floors, I liked standing there with these strangers. I liked it because even though we were strangers, even though we might be voting for different people (not really all that likely in my precinct), we were all there together as New Yorkers. I liked thinking that I was connected with New Yorkers and New York elections going back to Fiorello (who, by the way, was dead long before I ever set foot in the city). It’s the sense of being part of something that I want to be part of.

I was talking about this with a friend, and he had the same reaction. He said that when he votes, it always takes him back to the first time he voted. It was the Oregon Democratic primary in 1968. He voted for Bobby Kennedy against Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. Kennedy didn’t win in Oregon, McCarthy did. But a couple of weeks later, Kennedy went to California, and on the night that he won that primary, he was assassinated. My friend’s point is that his vote then connected him with an event of historical importance. And now when he votes, he still feels he’s connecting to history.

I think that’s why I vote and why my students don’t. Older people feel more of a connection to history. I know I feel that connection much more now than when I was in my twenties.

But the larger point is that voting is not a rational act, or at least not completely and not always. It’s not a logical means towards some specific goal (like putting the people you like in office). It’s more about how you feel. If you don’t feel connected to the dominant institutions and the history of the country, come election day there will be something else
you feel emotionally closer to, and you’ll probably be “too busy” to vote.

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