On the Friday before election day, I returned to my favorite place to vote, the Oklahoma County Election Board headquarters on Lincoln Boulevard. It conjured memories of standing in a long line with an ebullient crowd in 2008 to vote for Barack Obama. I was certain that the world was about to change, and that we would become a better country. Today I learned that a survey revealed that 88 percent of Americans fear political violence during this election and in the days that follow. Political violence? Are we talking about Venezuela? Brazil? Belarus? What happens if close election results are not accepted by election deniers? What if American democracy grinds to a halt under the weight of conspiracy theories spread by those with no regard for the truth? What if half of us won’t agree to lose?
I remember John McCain’s gracious concession speech to President-elect Obama, even when some of his followers booed the idea of wishing him well. Repeatedly he stopped them, as if to say, No. This is not what we do. This is not who we are. Mr. Obama is our president now, and America’s strength and genius can only endure through the peaceful transfer of power. McCain let it be known that it was an historic election and that he was aware of how much it must mean to African Americans so long denied a seat at the table. Now all of us must do everything we can, he said, to make our new president, and America, successful.
Go to YouTube and watch that speech. It’s just a few minutes long. It will remind you what virtue looks like. Remember virtue? Remember grace?
On the day I voted, the atmosphere was different, with more police officers and more poll workers who looked nervous but resolute. They greeted everyone warmly, instructed us on how to retrieve our ballots, and then thanked each one of us as we left. I picked up my favorite accessory of all time, the “I VOTED” sticker, and wore it for days. It would be hard to overstate the debt we owe to those who work at the polls. Many are volunteers, many are elderly and, unfortunately, many have left their jobs over concern for their own safety.
When a tornado tore through Idabel that same day and destroyed Trinity Baptist Church, the only polling place, it was moved by emergency decree to the Calvary Missionary Baptist Church across town because, well, this is America. The poll workers in Idabel packed up and moved their voter rolls, ballots, pencils and, of course, those iconic stickers as if there was nothing to it. Idabel took a direct hit. Democracy did not.
Standing inside that polling place on Lincoln Boulevard, I looked around the room and studied the faces of my neighbors: young, old, able, disabled, black, white, brown, straight, gay, rich, poor—you name it. Republicans and Democrats voting straight tickets. Independents making their independent choices. People trying to figure out who the judges were and whether they should be retained. Grandmothers smiling as they carefully fed their completed ballots into the scanning machines. There. Done. Now we’ll see if “We the People” can long endure. There. Done. Now I go home back to work or go home, knowing that I have done what I can, where I am, with what I have.
None of this is possible without poll workers. What we should all do when we vote is to thank them, tell them how much we appreciate their service to our country. Put up a parking sign at Lowe’s that says, “RESERVED FOR POLL WORKERS.” Because, across all our differences, we know that nothing is more important than making our voices heard, even if we lose. Perhaps especially when we lose.
Indeed, there was a strange and palpable joy that day as people performed a simple but revolutionary act. As if they knew that it was the one thing that could not be taken away from them, especially from the poor, although we have tried, and we are still trying. Watching people from every walk of life mark a ballot and leave it behind to be counted—trusting those who count it because they have proven again and again to be trustworthy—this is the most powerful political act of all. This is our thunderous retort to the Divine Right of Kings. This is the exclamation mark for women so long denied the right to vote. This is part of Dr. King’s Dream, yet to be fully realized.
This ritual, so easy to take for granted, is all that stands between all of us and a world full of authoritarian egomaniacs. We do not serve them. They serve us. Full stop.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, poll workers. Our deep gratitude goes out to you—the amazing women and men who get up, make the coffee, bring the donuts, patiently explain how to vote, and then stay late to clean up. Because of you, we still have a democracy.
Shame, shame, shame, everlasting shame on those who have made them afraid to report for duty. Our prayer is that you will not destroy what so many have worked so long and hard to build and so many have died to defend. Go ahead, sing it…
My country ‘tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty
Of thee I sing
Land where my fathers died
Land of the pilgrims’ pride
From every mountainside
Let freedom ring
The Rev. Dr. Robin Meyers is pastor of First Congregational Church UCC in Norman and retired senior minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC in Oklahoma City. He is currently Professor of Public Speaking, and Distinguished Professor of Social Justice Emeritus in the Philosophy Department at Oklahoma City University, and the author of eight books on religion and American culture, the most recent of which is, Saving God from Religion: A Minister’s Search for Faith in a Skeptical Age.