Today is Election Day. Unhappily, that fact matters less than it once did, since Americans now have been voting for weeks, and many millions already had cast their ballots before the polls opened this morning.
They call it “early voting” but we call it “premature voting.” Objections to it are both pragmatic and liturgical. The first set of concerns has to do with information and the reliability of election safeguards. The second has to do with preserving the ceremonial processes of democracy.
Premature voters go to the polls with less information. Those who voted weeks ago, for instance, did so unaware of Senator Obama’s promise to “bankrupt” utilities that attempt to build new power plants fueled by coal, an energy source America enjoys in abundance. As the weather turns chilly and energy prices remain high, Americans are apt to take an interest in Obama’s plan for making electricity less plentiful and more expensive. Obama’s most passionate admirers have a keen interest in electric and plug-in hybrid automobiles, which will, if successful, put additional demands on the electricity grid. And our generating stations run, overwhelmingly, on coal. With what does Obama plan to replace it? His answers are glib and ill thought-out. That Senator Obama would be so cavalier on this particular issue may have some premature voters in Ohio and West Virginia wishing they had an opportunity to reconsider their ballots. Better for them to have waited until Tuesday.
Premature voting is of particular concern in local elections, in which candidates typically have not been dissected by 20 months of global media scrutiny. It matters who wins the White House, but it also matters who is elected to the school boards and township councils. It would be better to wait until Election Day to make those decisions, too.
While it is important that voters go to the polls decently informed, it is also important that they go to the polls together. This is partly for reasons of prudence — among other concerns, absentee ballots offer many greater opportunities for organized fraud — but also for reasons of ritual. Voting is by its nature a communal exercise, and the franchise should be exercised in a way that reminds us that in our republic the people are the masters of the state, not the other way around — that we are citizens, not subjects. Americans are accustomed to convenience in all things, but votes are not cheeseburgers and need not be handed through drive-thru windows or collected on websites. There is nothing like a presidential campaign to remind us that democracy is not especially majestic, but there is a kind of austere beauty in free people coming together to cast their votes, whether they are purple-fingered Iraqis or citizens of the world’s oldest democracy gathering at schoolhouses and town halls. The togetherness of that exercise should not be diminished. There will always be some necessary exceptions, but those should be — exceptional. Today is the day to vote.