Yesterday’s primary election here was not suspenseful. None of the races, within my party and precinct, at least, were heavily contested. I voted out of habit, and to make my mark for a couple of the school board candidates.
Our polling place is the middle school five blocks from our house. We stopped there on our way to the library. Iris wiggled in the backpack, grinning at the officials and peering around at our neighbors. Ingrid held onto my leg, and I knelt down to show her my ballot.
“We vote to decide who gets to do certain important jobs,” I told her , “like being in charge of the schools, and making the rules for the country. Everybody gets to vote to help decide these things—all the grownups in this country. And whoever gets the most votes, gets to do those important jobs.”
I choked up, saying this to her. Explaining our complicated—and, lately, ugly—system of government in so few words was like trying to tell her about a bird by presenting her with a sun-bleached pile of strong, elegant bones. Here is what holds this all up, I was saying to her. Here are the ovals we fill in with a pen.
I couldn’t believe how hopeful I had to make myself to say those things, and how readily she accepted them. There was no room for election fraud, electoral gerrymandering, or smarmy campaign strategies. I didn’t talk about how my grandmothers, at her age, weren’t certain they’d grow up to vote, or how, as adults, they couldn’t tell their own little daughters that all grownups in this country help choose our leaders. After paring all that away, what remained was the most fragile kind of hope: This is where we can all say what we think is best.
The lump in my throat will be even larger in November. So much rests on the outcome, I don’t know about those thin, light bones. The people who do those important jobs will decide whether there’s war or peace in this world. They’ll decide what kind of country my little girls grow up in. They’ll have the chance to chip away at—or make worse—the great mountain of suffering—human and otherwise—on this planet.
When a weird sideshow full of meanhearted digs, irrelevant personal details, and cheap, illogical appeals to our most selfish impulses can rile so many into bizarre devotion (even as the rest of us retain the taste of throwup in our mouths for weeks), how much do I trust my neighbors to vote what is right? How much can I trust that the simple act at the core of our country’s being will move us any closer at all to where we ought to be?
Voting feels a greater honor than ever—the chance to elect someone who can really lead and inspire, can pull us out of the financial and social and spiritual mire we’ve made for ourselves. It also feels more an act of faith than ever: I fill in a circle, and, through some kind of alchemy, someone new—or not—appears at the helm of (still, arguably) the most powerful country in the world. There’s more than voting, of course, that I can and should do to make the world I want. But, still, so much rests on it, that inky spot on a sheet of paper, the whirring machine I feed it into. I don’t pray often, but the thought of all those ballots in November is enough to make me whisper, God, if you’re there, please make this work the way it should, the way I’m telling my daughter it does.