Lauren and I were in line, probably about 50 back, at 6:45. By the time the poll opened at 7, the line stretched down to the end of the block, at least 200 people long. Friends and neighbors waved to each other and stopped to say hello as they worked their way to the end of the line. Plans for election-night get-togethers were made. At the cusp of South Philly and Center City, the group was a mixture of all ages and races. Many had brought along their children.
A couple of weeks ago, when Lauren and I were out to dinner with a lawyer friend and his wife, the discussion turned, as it so often has these last few months, to the election. Why vote? Our friend asked, when you know that it won’t matter. Elections aren’t decided by one vote, and even though Florida 2000 looms large in our recent history, close elections are exceedingly rare.
Our friend meant this more as a thought experiment than as an actual exhortation not to vote. If you vote because you want your guy (or gal) to win, and your vote alone won’t have a bearing on the win, then why do it? After pondering this over our dinners, Lauren and I came up with some answers. For Lauren, it was about community. In our fragmented culture, there are few opportunities to feel a sense of community, whether it be that of a political party or the more literal community of our neighborhood. And indeed, huddled with our sleepy neighbors on the sidewalk in today’s early morning hours, the sense of community was palpable.
My argument in our voting thought experiment of a couple of weeks ago was that if you don’t vote, your opinion carries no weight. You may have an opinion on the war, on crime, on schools, on taxes or on the hundreds of other issues that impact your life, but there are precious few opportunities to exercise those opinions in a meaningful way. Voting provides an outlet for those opinions, and one could argue that if you do not use your rare opportunity to act on your opinions, you are scarcely entitled to it.
Standing in line this morning, I was struck by another impetus to vote, one arguably more relevant in this election. As we waited for the doors of the community center to open, people hopped out of line to snap photos of the growing crowd. Walking the dog after we finished voting, we ran into neighbors and everyone chatted about the details of their voting experience, even though nothing particularly remarkable had happened — we waited in line, signed our names in the register, made our picks, pushed the “VOTE” button and left.
But we have so few opportunities to act on history rather than letting history act upon us. And particularly this year, when the election, and the moment, feels so historic, this sense of being a player in our great national drama is getting people out there to play their parts.