Election Night Blues

By Stephen Steinlight on November 4, 2009

Once upon a time long ago in America, when I was young and predisposed to assume the essential integrity of our most basic political practices – voting first and foremost – going to the polls was an exhilarating experience. Even dissatisfaction with the choices between or among candidates didn't lessen the emotion. It was a solemn, moving occasion. I was an American engaged in a unifying civic ritual that derived its sacredness not only from its unchallenged position as the most exalted as well as indispensable ceremony in the civic life of the nation but because I believed it was – I can scarcely bring myself to say it now – pure, above reproach. Like anyone else familiar with U.S. history of course I knew of notorious exceptions, whether the machinations used to deny African Americans the vote in the pre-Voting Rights Act southern states, the widespread election chicanery that kept the big city political machines in power, or the role played by Mayor Richard Daley in ensuring John Kennedy's victory over Richard Nixon in the wee hours of 1960. But these exceptions proved the rule. We could lament past abuses, and shower them with contempt in self-congratulation because they were past abuses. We had washed away these excrescences, and our new reality was squeaky clean.

Last night when I went to vote in my poling place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, my feelings couldn't have been more different than the lovely naïve ones that once marked my participation. I felt as if I were complicit in a vast fraud and felt sullied, unclean. As the volunteer registrars checked my identification I provided all they required: a valid photo ID. They didn't even ask to see the other worthless pieces of paper that supposedly protect the legitimacy of our most important political process, a current utility bill or bank statement. (One can use the identical documents to register in the first instance.) The "required identification" cannot prevent illegal aliens from voting. I'm sure some voted along with me last night.

Feeling sullied also made me angry, and I sought to engage those running the polling station. I was firm but respectful. I outlined my concerns and asked for a copy of the sheet outlining the documentation requirements. The manager refused – as if I had asked for an atomic secret – and I quickly realized he, or someone, had summoned other polling workers to surround me. I wasn't treated like a voter expressing civic concern, nor merely treated as a nuisance: I was a loon raising a ruckus. Just as I exited two cops entered, called, I'm sure, by the polling station. They wanted the cops there to make sure I'd leave peacefully before they'd have to escort me out or arrest me.

It's a two-minute walk home up Columbus Avenue, and a half block before I reached my corner I passed two people handing out campaign literature for candidates for City Council. Since they were canvassing for votes I assumed they'd be concerned about the election's integrity, and as there were no prospective voters around I stopped to talk to them about the issue I'd raised in the polling station. I wanted to know whether they were troubled by the fact there's nothing to stop millions of illegal aliens from voting – from potentially determining the outcome of elections.

I was feeling so distraught about my Paradise Lost in the voting booth I'd forgotten where I live: the Upper West Side of Manhattan where people that care about the distinction between legal immigrants and illegal aliens are as common as, say, a Sasquatch or Republican. The natives stared me up and down in a nanosecond, trying in that expressionless nonchalant New York way to determine whether or not I was schizophrenic and this was my crazed obsession. Satisfied by my camel's hair sport coat and sequential speech that I was sane, they then felt safe enough to berate me. It would have been bad enough if just one attacked, but both did. They had two questions for me: "Why I was afraid of those people?" and "What did I have against them?" I assured them I wasn't operating out of fear or dislike but out of respect for the ballot and the rule of law. They stared long. They told me to examine my real motives.

I arrived home mightily depressed. I'd failed to find anyone that cared about the issue. Instead, in turn, I'd been viewed as a potential violent perpetrator in the polling station, then as a lunatic and a xenophobe just one block from my doorway.

Never one to let go, this morning's phone calls to the Capitol Hill offices of Sen. Schumer and Sen. Gillibrand, both supporters of amnesty; and then to my Congressman, Jerrold Nadler, ditto, didn't help assuage my election night misery. The staff, most of whom have taken calls from me before and know me by now, treated me as a crank, and took up more time taking my zip code for the umpteenth time than troubling to react to my concern. But they'll pass it along. I wait breathlessly for a response.

How many of us are there that feels as if America, like ancient Rome, is burning, and our Representatives, like the Emperor, are fiddling?