Rat Race

Ahh, the elections, or as Jon Stewart fondly refers to it: Indecision 2008.

The campaign supporters and volunteers were out in force in 22 states yesterday, including New York, for Super Tuesday (or if you’re watching MSNBC: Monster Super Tuesday). I suppose in most places voters are bombarded with leaflets and brochures at the places they most often gather like traffic lights or the food court at the mall. In New Haven, CT, however, voters may be treated to a cup of Joe and friendly banter right at the polls by former first daughter Chelsea Clinton, which, I mention as an aside, is against the law.

In New York City, when campaigners want to reach the most voters in a precinct, they take to the subway. For the past week, commuters have been virtually pummeled from all sides as they enter and leave the stations. There’s no way to escape without feeling like you’ve been covered in mud as you pass them. Actually most times, I slink away as if I were a sort of dastardly scab worker crossing the union picket line. I don’t know why.

Another aside: While writing an article a few years back, I had to do some research on voting and elections. It surprised me to learn that almost forty percent of eligible voters don’t cast a ballot. I decided to conduct a very informal poll.

“Why do you vote?” I asked a colleague in Manhattan.

“If you don’t vote, you can’t complain about the way the country is being run.”

“You’re saying you vote so you can complain later?” I asked.

“That’s right.” A New Yorker to the core.

Then I put the question to a friend while we were riding the D train home one night. “It’s our responsibility as citizens,” she said.

Sounded like rhetoric to me. “Why?”

“Because a lot of other people around the world would like to vote, but they can’t.”

Not one person mentioned that they voted to, as former slave turned abolitionist Frederick Douglass argued, “choose rules and make laws.” Several people told me they didn’t vote at all. “Maybe when there’s someone worth voting for I’ll dust off my registration card. It’s not like anyone wins by one vote,” said one Ivy League educated woman.

Maybe not. But that probably wasn’t even on the minds of the women demanding, among other rights, the right to vote in 1848. After the first Women’s National Convention, the newspapers called the women “heretics” and “sexless old maids.” One said the convention was “amusing,” and one claimed that equal rights would “prove a monstrous injury to all mankind.”

Convention organizer Elizabeth Cady Stanton sensed that the right to vote would be a long time coming. “We are sowing winter wheat and won’t be alive to see the spring harvest.” (She was right. It would take 72 more years before the 19th Amendment was ratified giving women the right to vote in 1920. And every day – every day – until she died she worked for the future she would never see, chipping away at the establishment.)

So here’s my little plug, for whatever it’s worth. If you can’t muster the desire to vote for yourself or your future, then do it for Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and the thousands of other men and women who spent their entire lives wishing they could part a curtain, click a few boxes and “make their voices heard,” as one leaflet given to me promised.

In the end, I think that’s what all the campaign supporters are doing at the subway stations – trying to make their voices heard. It’s so easy to get caught up in the din, especially when they are competing for attention with supporters from other camps. Like the buskers who follow unspoken rules to keep to certain areas of the station, so do the volunteers. The Clinton team waits at the top of the stairs as you enter the station and the Obama team is near the turnstile. They have catchy little slogans (“It’s Obama-rama.”), colorful placards and expensively-produced brochures. But sometimes, the lines get blurred when tensions run high.

On Monday, I approached the turnstile at Grand Army Plaza in the middle of an argument between two campaigners. It was getting heated. I didn’t hear all of what was being said, but it was something like, “Your candidate’s momma wears combat boots.” Fingers were pointing, nostrils were flaring, and it didn’t seem long before fists might come out. There were people around trying to break it up. I ducked my head and hurried down to the platform.

Maybe that’s why I feel strange when I pass the campaigners hanging around the subway stations. I hope they understand what they’re really fighting for.

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