Voting Heroes

Pictures of U.S. citizens waiting in line for up to eight hours to vote in Georgia are stunning. Ordinary citizens, Mr. and Mrs. tout le monde, some sitting on folding chairs, many reading to pass the time, show a determination to cast ballots that deserves recognition and reflection. Recognition as Time magazine’s Citizens of the Year? Heroes for those worrying about the end of democracy in the United States? Proof that the common man voting remains the bedrock of liberal institutions? There are no signs of cynicism among them. No posters or posturing. They are simply people waiting in line to exercise their constitutional right to choose their representatives in Washington.

But the stunning pictures also call for reflection. How is that that these people still have faith that their votes will count? That they still have faith in the electoral system? After all the denigration of the voting process, after all the rumors about fraud, the lines show that there are still believers, there are still people who trust the electoral process, including the outdated Electoral College.

In a deeper sense, those waiting in line believe that the people they will choose will represent them loyally once they are elected. Those waiting in line not only believe in the electoral process, they also believe that the democratic system works; i.e., in Abraham Lincoln’s terms: government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Are these people naïve? After four years of Donald Trump and all we are learning about gerrymandering and voter repression, are there still so many people who believe either in Trump or that the system can be reformed if the Biden/Harris ticket is elected? Does anyone believe that if elected Biden/Harris will restore a democracy that has been frittered away economically and politically for more than four years? Obviously many of those waiting in line do.

Let me step back for a moment. As an American citizen, I received a ballot for voting from the county of my last residence in the United States, in my case New York. I didn’t have to register to vote or ask for the ballot as I had done years ago. The ballot came automatically. In order to vote, all I had to do was to fill in a circle, sign and seal the envelope and mail it at the post office. At most a short 15 minute process.

As a Swiss citizen, I regularly receive voting material in the mail. After several years and failed attempts to properly open the envelope, I now know how to strip away the envelope, put Xs in certain boxes, refold the envelope and place it in a mailbox. At most, a five minute process, although reading all the information about the different subjects of the referendums can take longer.

(I do take note from several comments in a previous blog that more Swiss citizens don’t vote because they are too frequently asked to do so, sometimes as many as three or four times a year. Criticism accepted although not proven.)

Voting in two countries takes me roughly 20 minutes. I have not waited in line. I have certainly not waited eight hours.

More importantly, I am not convinced that my vote in the United States will matter on several levels. As an American expat, I vote in the place of my last residence since Americans overseas have no special representation although we are roughly eight million and have to file taxes. (Wasn’t the revolution of 1776 fought over “No taxation without representation”?)

Also, the mailing of the ballot assumes it will reach the United States and be accurately counted. In many states, mail-in ballots have been and will be hotly contested. And even Switzerland is not perfect here. In the most recent vote, roughly 30,000 of the 780,000 Swiss citizens living abroad didn’t receive or couldn’t return their ballots because of problems with the postal system.

People waiting in line for hours to vote in the United States are believers in the electoral institution. They have faith that their voting will eventually effect their lives. For these brave citizens, individuals matter. They are voting for specific people to represent them; they are not tied to mega theories about the rise and fall of empires, the internal contradictions of capitalism or long historical cycles.

Trump has called into question democracy in America. The expected large voter turnout confirms the voters’ belief in the democratic system. There is no way to rationally argue with beliefs. They are based on faith. That so many U.S. citizens have this faith is impressive.

Is it only an illusion? After the results are finally in, will those who voted for the winners be confirmed in their belief? Many who voted for the losers will cry foul or fraud. Some may even decry the democratic process and turn violent.

For the moment, those who believe in democracy are waiting in line to vote. Up to eight hours in line. Stunning. Heroic.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.