I went out to vote on election day at about 7 a.m. There was no-one at the polls except the election workers, and I was able to vote and head home in under ten minutes. As I pulled the lever back to the left for perhaps the twentieth time in my life, I realized that the sound it makes is one of a small collection of highly satisfying and symbolic noises which add a good deal of pleasure to existence.
The sound of a door opening when I am half asleep is one of them; at one point when I was already an adult I realized that this involved a memory from childhood, of my parents coming home at the end of a weekend evening out. Another pleasurable sound, easier to explain, is the shrieking of two modems handshaking. To the uninitiated, it is a horrible noise, as bad as a car alarm. For fourteen years of my life, since my first Compuserve account in 1984 (I was dialing in from a NEC 8201 notebook computer), the shrill modem sound has been peculiarly comforting: it means I am connected and all is right with the world. Each of the noises in my life--the door, the modem, the voting booth lever--represents the making of a connection important to my well-being.
We all too often analyze voting in the cold light of logic, as a futile or insignificant act. We know that politicians will not stand or fall based on our one vote, and many (if not most) of us now believe that the choices are extremely limited. We stay home thinking that we are holding ourselves out of a farce, or that anything else we had to do that required an hour was more important than going to the polls.
Many people who are cynical about voting nevertheless recognize and even depend on the warm symbolism of other acts. In your life, what helps you, even in the bad times, draw the courage to continue? Perhaps it is a prayer remembered from childhood, the touch of a rabbit's foot, the sight of a friend who cares for you, the warmth of your sleepy three-year-old in the morning. Democracy, like life itself, is an activity which requires optimism.
I vote for the same reason I would touch a friend or hug a child. However meaningless my vote is (the first I ever cast, in 1972, was for George McGovern, and I have no regrets), casting it involves a compact with an idea of profound importance to me. My vote doesn't represent a compact with Bill Clinton, or the Congress, or even the United States as it exists today. The act of voting builds a bridge between me and the idea of a democracy. Not what we have, not what the slave-owning founders actually created, not under any circumstances the "is", but the "ought" which shone from their words. Not the actual hypocritical world of Thomas Jefferson, but the world one senses from his words he would have wished to live in. The one containing the man he would have liked to be.
Looked at this way, my vote is the expression of an "ought." It may be a small, inconsequential gesture. Looked at as a symbolic act, it isn't small at all. There is no such thing as a small symbolic act. All symbols are giants, because born in pure mind where size and consequence are completely irrelevant. A black armband, a scarlet ribbon in your sleeve or on your Web page, are large important matters, because associated with an idea. The quiet click of that lever, as a symbolic act, is not inconsequential at all. It was the loudest noise in Brooklyn Heights, in New York City and the state, and in the country last Tuesday.
I stood in the booth, pulled the curtain and in complete privacy, with no-one watching, I said, "This is the way things ought to be." I selected candidates or rejected them based on my beliefs about their integrity. I avoided party lines and voted for nothing and no-one whhich didn't make sense to me. Then I pulled the lever, recorded that "ought" and sent it crashing into the public consciousness with the landslide of other "oughts" that people filed that day.
Theodore Herzl was a Jewish journalist in Europe who believed there should be a Jewish state. He said, "If you will it, it is not a dream." Through his efforts, driven by his unflagging optimism, the state of Israel came to be. If he and other people like him could create a nation that didn't exist before, our job, of re-creating one which already largely exists, is so much easier. A vote after all is not only speech but action. Voting is one of those areas under human control where the math and the physics are very simple. A mountain of oughts is an is.