Last week, in an effort to improve dismal voter turnout, Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar proposed a ballot measure that, if passed, would allow city elections to be conducted almost entirely by mail.
It's not a new or radical idea. At least one-third of all ballots cast in the country this year will not be marked in voting booths at polling places on election day. But trends and good intentions notwithstanding, allowing all voters to vote by mail is counterproductive in the long run, not least because it ultimately contributes to the political apathy that causes low turnout in the first place.
Political scientists and analysts often blame low voter turnout on the public's dwindling faith in politics and government or on the obstacles some say discourage people from casting ballots. But there's another possibility, and that is that voting just doesn't make us feel that important anymore.
Once upon a time, election day (which calendars reverently and traditionally capitalize), carried a more significant — some might even say sacred — meaning. If democracy is at the core of our nation's civil religion, then voting is its central, most powerful ritual — its communion, if you will. And like any ritual, individuals derive meaning from the act when it is collectively performed.
That's what rituals are about — they interrupt the humdrum nature of everyday life and give us an opportunity to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. In political terms, it's the foundation of representative government. In other words, joining with our neighbors, heading to the polls and knowing that the same thing is happening across the nation legitimizes the entire system, and it legitimizes the individual voter as well. By going out and pulling a lever or punching a chad in a public place, the voter offers up what the philosopher Kenneth Burke called "a secular prayer," a supplication to remote powers that his — and many others' — voice be heard.
In the early days of the country, election days were raucous, carnivalesque affairs that offered citizens the chance to blow off steam as well as feel that they were all in it together. At the turn of the 20th century, after casting their ballots, urban voters often gathered in public places to revel, blow tin horns and await the results. In Philadelphia, election-night bonfires were part of local custom. Bets were made and music was played. In the 1920s, newspapers in some cities provided entertainment and fireworks outside their buildings for crowds awaiting returns. The sacred ritual was wrapped in profane fun.
But think about election day now. Except for the coterie of campaign workers (who head to rented hotel ballrooms), most of us attend to elections as background noise, on TV or via a digital feed. With the one exception of the big-turnout 2008 presidential election, when my Koreatown polling place was buzzing with excitement, most of my voting experiences involve bored volunteers. Sure they give me an "I voted" sticker, but it does nothing to cut the loneliness.
Election day, as one historian said, has become a "shrunken event" in an increasingly disenchanted society. Ronald Hirschbein, an emeritus philosophy professor at Cal State Chico, puts it this way in the book "Voting Rites": "Casting a ballot no longer provides the narcissistic nutrients that nourish our robust sense of significance." How do we know for sure? In the March 2009 Los Angeles city elections, voter turnout was 17.9%; two years before that, it was 11.1%.
It makes sense that politicians and policymakers want to bring ballots to people. But in the long run, will further privatizing a powerful public act help? Even in the short run, the states that have made voting more convenient haven't seen a heartwarming increase in turnout.
Of course there are many reasons people don't vote, but particularly in a time when the average voter questions whether he can really make a difference, we need to get caught up in the electoral process, in Hirschbein's words, so that we "can suspend disbelief (or at least skepticism) about the efficacy of a single vote."
If we really want to turn the table on low voter turnout, we need to make election day more of a public celebration, not less.