In anticipation of Election Day, we bring you stories about going to the polls.
“Americans used to vote with their voices—viva voce—or with their hands or with their feet. Yea or nay,” Jill Lepore wrote in this 2008 New Yorker essay on the history of voting in this country. Even as paper voting was being adopted in the nineteenth century, voters were expected to bring their own ballots. Votes were often bought or tampered with, and voters themselves were regularly intimidated or threatened with violence. “In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, eighty-nine Americans were killed at the polls during Election Day riots.”
This election will—like many–is said to come down to undecided voters. In this 2004 essay, also from the New Yorker, Louis Menand asserted that decided and undecided voters are fundamentally incapable of understanding one another. “To voters who identify strongly with a political party, the undecided voter is almost an alien life form … To an undecided voter, on the other hand, the person who always votes for the Democrat or the Republican, no matter what, must seem like a dangerous fanatic.” He wondered, “Which voter is behaving more rationally and responsibly?”
The issues of both policing voter fraud and preventing voter intimidation are alive and well in this election. Mariah Blake’s Atlantic article from last month, “The Ballot Cops” puts both into perspective. Stoked by both the close—and some felt fraudulent—1960 election of John F. Kennedy and the momentum toward the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights and Voter Rights acts, the Republican National Committee launched “Operation Eagle Eye” ahead of the 1964 election. “As part of the program, the RNC recruited tens of thousands of volunteers to show up at polling places, mostly in inner cites, and challenge voters’ eligibility using a host of tools and tactics, including cameras, two-way radios, and calls to Republican-friendly sheriffs.” But, Blake wrote, such efforts have backfired before.
Regardless of who wins next week, nearly half the country will imagine a scenario in which it had gone the other way. In his recent Byliner Original “43*," Jeff Greenfield did exactly that with the contested 2000 election. This excerpt begins, “President Gore strode into the House chamber as the senators, representatives, cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, chiefs of staff, and a gallery of notables stood and cheered.”