Wednesday, October 22, 2008

In my humble opinion

If you haven’t registered to vote by now, you just may be too late, even if you know someone from ACORN, the community activist group that’s been in the news because of alleged voter registration fraud. You may still be spouting hot air about the candidates and the issues, but when it comes to making a difference, you’ve blown it for the next four years. Remember: The trucking industry is supposed to reduce emissions, so take that as a friendly suggestion.

Early voting in Tennessee started on Oct. 13 – a Monday, thank goodness – and in my town, the lines have been consistently long. I tried early in the week to vote before going off to work, but the predicted 30-minute wait would have made me later than usual to the job. So I decided to try Saturday, knowing that a lot of other folks would, too.

I arrived at the courthouse around 10:40 that morning, and only as the clock moved toward 11:30 did the line inside begin to shrink. It had run the length of the building and around half of the central rotunda. The election commission was ready, though. They had a full crew at the office and, while long, the line kept moving at a pace the Post Office wishes it could achieve. Why, I wondered, does it take longer to buy stamps than to decide who will warm the most powerful chair in the world for four years?

While in line, people exchanged small talk or chatted on cell phones or read. We all agreed that the line that day was nothing compared with what it would be on Nov. 4 and nodded solemnly in self-congratulation for being smart enough to vote early.

Outside, the campaigners and their supporters crowded up against the invisible 100-foot boundary for campaign materials. They waved and cheered and occasionally swapped thumbs-up with arriving or departing voters, or with folks bound for the recently completed new home for the county historical archives. Like the grand county building itself, the archives and their new home had been the subject of some bitter local politics, but on this day both seemed serene and a mark of progress for our increasingly suburban county.

The sky was blue, the air finally fall-cool after a cold front swept through, and the trees had some reds and oranges, although a long dry spell and unseasonably mild weather seem likely to blunt the usual brilliance. One of our high schools (6-1) had beaten an undefeated (7-0) Nashville team last night, so there was an air of celebration.

A fall/Halloween scene in front of the courthouse reminded us that the second-most decorated holiday in America is nigh. The scene cheerily mocked the dark forces and fear of the unknown that originally inspired the holiday. After seeing and deleting countless e-mails filled with racial, religious and personal epithets about both candidates, I thought maybe we haven’t come all that far from those ancient Celts.

Taken altogether, it was a small-town scene that is being repeated everywhere. Even in big cities, the voting process narrows down to neighborhoods, erasing the vast megalopolis and reminding everyone that all politics is local, and of the importance of taking part.

Having grown up in the South during the civil rights era, I have a keen appreciation of the need to vote at every opportunity, even if all the choices are less than palatable. A vote is an affirmation of faith in a system many still regard as a grand experiment.

One can hold one’s nose and hope for better choices next time; can declare that so and so may hold such and such office, but they’re not “my” (insert office title). But not voting is a surrender to the short-term and to despair and cynicism. Moreover, it’s a slap in the face to those men and women standing in harm’s way so we can gripe about not having any good choices, or having choices that are desperately opposite in intentions.

That, IMHO, is not an option.

Note: For complete information on registration deadlines in various states, click here. Remember, seven states offer election-day registration, and some locales do not require voters to register at all.