MY 7-YEAR-OLD AND I headed to our local polling place -- the Lynch Recreation Center in Brookline, Mass. -- at 6:50 on Tuesday morning, only to find at least 40 voters already waiting in line. As Caleb shivered in the cold, I explained what would happen once we got inside.
Our first stop, I said, would be the table where the pollworkers would cross my name off the precinct voter list. Then we would be handed a ballot, on which we would mark our choices in each race. Then my name would be marked on another list, and the ballot would go into a tabulating machine.
Caleb wondered if voting was mandatory. "Do you have to vote?" he asked.
No, I told him, and in fact many Americans -- tens of millions of them -- wouldn't be voting in this election. I explained too that there was no mystery about how the vote would go in Massachusetts: John Kerry would take the state in a walk, and everybody standing in line knew it.
His next question was the obvious one: "So why do they all want to vote?"
Yes, I thought, why did we all want to vote?
After all, no single vote is ever likely to decide the outcome of a presidential election. That's true even in hotly-contested battleground states, never mind "red" or "blue" states where the outcome is a forgone conclusion. So why go to all the trouble of voting? Why stand in the cold? Wouldn't it make more sense to stay home and let everyone else stand in the cold?
For some voters, voting is simply a civic obligation -- something a responsible citizen does, like paying taxes or showing up for jury duty, because society depends on its getting done. Others genuinely enjoy the experience of voting. Election Day is meaningful to them for its communitarian power -- it brings together citizens of every rank as equals in an ancient secular ceremony. Still others, caught up in the thrill of a close election, want to be a part of the action.
Then there are tactical voters. I'm sure I wasn't the only American in line yesterday who was determined to add one more vote to his candidate's popular-vote tally regardless of that candidate's odds of winning the state's electoral votes. Bush voters in Massachusetts, like Kerry voters in Alabama, were obviously in the minority. But even for a losing candidate, more public support is better than less. The Electoral College may choose the president, but the popular vote confers an important measure of legitimacy.
Ultimately, though, I think voting is for most of us an act of faith -- faith that our government is still, despite all the deception and cynicism that corrupt modern politics, a government of, by, and for the people. That elections have not yet been turned into a meaningless farce. And that democracy remains, as Churchill said, "the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His website is www.JeffJacoby.com).
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