Soundings: Vote

The line to cast our ballots is long, but there’s a welcome sense of calm, far from the tiresome discord so prevalent in the political process.

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

The line to vote on this chilly, wind-clipped afternoon extends outside the County-City Building in downtown South Bend. It stretches down the sidewalk, bends and snakes through a brick plaza — like a line for a ride at an amusement park. One difference, though, is that we are staggered six feet apart. Social distancing in place.

It moves slowly. But I don’t care.

I’ve been assured that since we’re in line before closing time, we will be allowed to vote today. My wife is here with me and, even though we hardly speak during our wait, it’s nice to be together in a quiet space.

In fact, I like the company — all of us American citizens devoting an hour or more to voting, to fulfill a civic duty, and a civic privilege, to make a statement, to say, “Hooray for our side.” It’s inspiring. It makes me feel good about this country.

Mainly, I like being here because it is relatively quiet. I can hardly hear other voices. I stop looking at people, guessing who they might be voting for. I live in a blue pocket of a very red state. Yard signs are evenly mixed. Somehow, all that has dissipated here. I am relieved. Despite the cold wind and the long wait, there is a sense of calm here. People keep to themselves, stand patiently in line, move up a few feet every few minutes. Placid is a word that comes to mind.

There are no bellowing voices. No one lying, making outrageous claims. No TV with its fiery ads. No demonstrators waving placards and flags. There is no angry Black Lives Matter protest and no white supremacists spewing hatred and hostility. No one is arguing about a Supreme Court nomination or the Proud Boys or the militia plotting to kidnap the governor of the state 10 miles north of here.

We all wear masks (except for the guy in the camo outfit whose mask protects his throat but doesn’t cover nose, mouth or chin), and no one is fighting over pandemic politics. Or Second Amendment rights or climate change or family morality or international trade, immigrants on the border, rural poverty or Rust Belt economies.

This afternoon, in South Bend, Indiana, winter is coming, but there is no sign of wildfire or hurricane. 

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I am weary. I am tired of the acrimony, the rancor, the divisive nature of what passes for public discourse. I am tired of politicians who prey upon people’s fears, who enflame the resentments, who dote on the divides. I’m tired of people in power doing everything they can to hold on to that power, and other people conniving mightily to gain power. I am tired of the disheartening conflicts between the police and African American communities. I am tired of religious people who don’t act like it.

I am tired of explaining this country to my teenage kids, the country my parents believed was the greatest nation on earth, part of a generation who endured the Depression, World War II, the Red Scare and Cold War, who stood patriotically resolute in their devotion to the American dream, the ideals and principles of freedom and honor. And who raised me with that same sense of allegiance to this grand experiment in democracy and human nature.

I am weary of what’s become of it all.

So I am grateful to be in line today. I give the guy in the throat-mask the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he has asthma, COPD or some other respiratory issue. Maybe his mask placement and hunter’s attire do not mean what I suspect. We are all victims of stereotyping, prejudices, misguided assumptions and self-righteous judgment. I am tired of that, too, even my own. The other as enemy. I am tired of feeling this way.

I am tired of the news stories — even the ones igniting my little fires. I am tired of my own animosities and distrust. I am tired of the elephant in the room affecting me as much as it does, knowing it only affects me as much as I let it. I am tired of the things of this world having such an effect on other aspects of my life — the deeper levels, the ones that really matter.

Of course, a good portion of my fatigue comes from a pandemic now into its eighth month of siege-like entrapment. There are millions of cases, hundreds of thousands of deaths, the ravaging of families, the stress on health care workers, the personal tragedies and economic repercussions. But there is, too, the cessation of normalcy, the loss of social gatherings and meals out and meetings at bars and coffeehouses to chat with friends. Movies. Ballgames. All those entertainments that buoy you back up when life gets you down. Feeling spent, but now without the antidote of joy. 

And not just the coronavirus and its impact, but the politicization of it all. Science versus denial. Personal freedom versus the common good. Financial woes versus public health. Shut down or open up. Wear a mask or not. And the strain that comes from that decision when those around you don’t care. It’s wearying.

But today, in line to vote, all that can be stowed away. People inch forward. My wife and I have made our way indoors. We are here to vote, to express our choice, to do what we can in this moment. A simple task. But a statement of self. We have come two weeks early.

We know about the attempts at voter suppression, the reduction of polling places, the fake ballot boxes in California, the effort to discredit mail-in voting, the gerrymandering and mistrust of the U.S. Postal Service, the restrictions in Texas requiring people to drive great distances to exercise their right to vote, the allegation that one candidate’s loss can mean only one thing — that the system was rigged.

So we — along with a record number of Americans — have come early. To take no chances. And, as the long line continues to snake indoors, I look at the others here and feel good about the company I’m in. I am grateful for the quiet and the efficiency, the refuge out of the clamoring froth and turbulence. I am tired; I just want peace.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.