Originally posted on Tuesday, November 2, 2004:
I arrived at our community library this morning to find a line of people extending beyond the polling place to the doors of the library itself. What has typically taken a few minutes took about a half hour. People’s spirits were high, partly because after today we won’t have to hear any campaign ads for a while, and partly because it is so refreshing to see people so eager to vote. All of us in line this morning felt that it was a good problem to have.
Here in Ohio, and in many other “swing states” as well, we’ve been hearing campaign ads for six months. It would be tempting to think of today as the day that all ends; but it won’t, of course. Lots of observers expect challenges and recounts to delay our knowing the final results for weeks; but it’s the nature of America to be a work in progress. Even if we were to have no electoral challenges, and even if one candidate were to win in a walk, this Election Day would end with unfinished business.
I have received overwhelmingly positive responses from the readers of this little series of essays, including those who have disagreed with some of my conclusions. Their support encourages me to take some time today to address the challenges we will continue to face after we know today’s outcome.
First: we need to address the very real “culture war” that exists in this country. Let’s hope that the renewed interest this election has seen will reduce the “echo chamber” effect in politics, in which people speak only to those who already hold the same beliefs while those views become more and more extreme.
Second: between this election and the next, we will need to communicate with our public officials. Sometimes we forget that electing the right people is only the first step: that we have a responsibility to keep after them once they are elected so that they will know what we want them to do. Thanks to the Internet, it is easier to stay in touch with public officials now than it has ever been before; likewise, it’s easier to see which ones are responsive and which ones aren’t.
Third: we should all rejoice at the renewed interest in participation in democracy. The scandalously low turnout in some past elections robbed their outcomes of legitimacy and encouraged more voter apathy. Perhaps this year’s events reflect a real change in the quality of our political life.
Fourth: we will still have negative campaigning. Negative campaigning keeps good people from running for office; it uses up campaign funds that could be used to explore real issues; and it contributes to voter cynicism and apathy by perpetuating the myth that “they’re all alike.” But it’s been around nearly as long as our democracy because, unfortunately, it works.
Fifth: we need more candidates. Close to half the positions on my ballot this morning were uncontested; I think that’s unfortunate. Over the years I’ve run for public, party, and organizational office, I’ve found candidacy to be challenging but rewarding; even losing is educational. I hope that this year’s elections will stimulate a resurgence of interest in public office, particularly among younger citizens.
I am always hopeful–not confident, just hopeful–about democracy’s ability to correct itself. Institutions seldom make progress in a straight line, so that corrective function works slowly. Maybe, years from now, we will look back at 2004 and realize that it was indeed the most important election in our lifetime: not just because of the issues and the candidates, but because it called forth the passion and commitment of people on all sides and reminded us once again of the blessings that we share as Americans.