I’ve voted for a lot of losing candidates in my time (at the presidential level, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have been the only winners). Yet I’ve always found casting my ballot a reliably pleasant experience. My social interactions at polling stations over the years have nearly always been not just cordial but invigorating. Other voters usually looked like they were getting the same charge that I was.
The air of good feeling that envelops polling stations warrants a little attention. Voting is one of the least consequential acts imaginable. Because the chance of one’s vote changing the outcome of an election by breaking a tie among all the other votes cast is microscopic, taking the trouble to vote never makes sense because of its expected effects. If political partisanship is your thing, you’d be infinitesimally better off transporting at least two other like-minded, but otherwise delinquent, people to the polls. If you’re ambitious, you’ve lost an hour of your life that could’ve been devoted to advancing your career. If you’re a do-gooder, you’d do immeasurably more good by helping a blind person cross the street or by giving blood. Whatever your objectives are, there’s got to be a better way of using your scarce time to promote them than voting.
So why bother dragging your sorry ass to the polls? One answer is implicit in those hectoring public service television messages around election time urging us to vote. Those delivered by stodgy civic organizations like the League of Women Voters are usually designed to make us feel guilty for even thinking that we might have something better to do. Others are calculated to fix our attention squarely on the messenger, like hip-hop impresario P. Diddy’s unintelligible 2004 injunction that we “Vote or Die!” (I’d already planned to do both). Although they come in all shapes and sizes, these exhortations invariably treat voting as a tiresome civic obligation, like recycling used plastic containers on trash day.
The reasoning behind them goes something like this: Democracy is the best available form of government, but it produces legitimate public decisions only when a sufficient number of people vote. So everyone should want most other eligible voters to vote. Yet, since the viability of democratic government never turns on whether anyone in particular votes, nobody has a similar interest in taking the trouble to cast his own ballot. Under the circumstances, simple fairness demands that each of us do what we would have others do. If voting brings any psychological rewards, on this view, it’s the fleeting tingle of self-regard one gets from doing one’s duty and of gratitude one feels for people bearing a common burden.
That all makes perfect sense, I guess, but it doesn’t speak to my experience. I can’t be the only one who enjoys the whole ritual of voting: sending subtle signals of solidarity to the like-minded canvassers you pass on the way to polls; exchanging scrupulously nonpartisan pleasantries with other voters while you wait your turn; and, finally, retiring discreetly behind a tattered curtain to tilt the switches on the antique mechanical contraptions used in my district before hearing the satisfying crunch when you pull the rusty lever that officially registers your vote and wipes the slate clean for the next voter. All of this feels good to me in its own right, not at all like a chore I’m happy to have gotten out of the way.
That suggests a different explanation of why people vote that turns on voting’s intrinsic rewards. Election Day presents a rare occasion in our society when one’s sense of self-respect merges seamlessly with one’s moral and civic duty to respect others. Voting is a way of affirming that your two cents about how the country should work count just because they’re yours. The standard way of making them count, however, is by congregating on Election Day with other people depositing their own two cents. That’s an edifying reminder that, when our polity lives up to its democratic ideals, every citizen counts as one and no citizen counts as more than one.
These considerations help explain why, although they’re populated largely by perfect strangers, polling stations are such sociable places. They’re among the few places in our society where hierarchies of wealth and social status cast no shadow. Even on a rainy day, everyone gets the chance to stand for a time on equal footing in democratic sunshine. One indication that people enjoy the sensation is that, at least in my experience, they don’t spoil it by airing their partisan differences. They know in their bones that, after a contentious campaign, there comes a time for showing a decent respect for the opinions of one’s compatriots. Election Day is an occasion for conscientious citizens to subordinate their own will to the process of generating and effectuating the People’s will.
Call me a sentimental fool, but I’ve always appreciated the opportunity to take my place among equal citizens.
Update: Having now voted, I'm sorry to report that, in my Manhattan voting district, optical scanners have replaced the old mechanical voting machines. I guess that's progress, but I can't help missing the "satisfying crunch" you heard when you pulled the lever on the old machines.