Steinberg: Every vote is a little act of faith in democracy

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“What shall . . . we use . . . to fill . . . the empty . . . spaces . . . where . . . we used . . . to talk,” I sang quietly to myself, lyrics from an old Pink Floyd song, early Tuesday morning as I headed to the polls to vote in a meaningless suburban election.

If ever there was an election to miss, this was it. An uncontested village president. A lone candidate for clerk. A solitary assessor. Three library trustees vying for three slots. Of 14 races, two, count ’em, two, fielded more candidates than offices.

Why waste the time? Why confuse my poor little dog? Her walnut brain, seeing the jacket go on, rejoiced: “A walk! A walk!” Why leave her at the front door, wilting, as I slip out the back at 6:20 a.m.? At that hour, there was no line. I was the first voter of the day, the only voter, with six election judges keeping a watchful eye as I made my satisfying fat green electronic check marks. Nobody arrived while I was there. Early voting is no doubt a factor. But still.

Why bother?

Because I’ve never missed voting in an election. Not once. My little sacrifice of time, some drops of routine life sprinkled on the altar of democracy. This act, making those marks, is what creates authority. Delegates power. Expresses the will of the people.

The will of some people. Two-thirds of eligible voters don’t bother with local elections. Even in last November’s epic presidential contest between a steely longtime politician and a thin-skinned newcomer, 40 percent of registered voters didn’t see anything to get them off the couch to vote.

Were they right?

Maybe. Even those of us who do vote, our voices are muffled by all the thick political padding. Start with gerrymandering, the re-drawing of voter districts to maximize benefit to one party or another. Chicago is notorious for gerrymandering. Look at a ward map sometime. It’s embarrassing, or would be if we could afford being embarrassed about matters beyond the daily bloodbath.

OPINION

State boundaries can’t be redrawn, thank God. If they could, imagine what politicians would do to the country. The map would look like a pail of eels.

Though the states themselves are vote distortion machines. Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois sits on the Senate Judiciary committee. So does Republican Mike Lee of Utah. When Lee was re-elected in 2016 — running against a transgendered Democratic candidate named Misty Snow — he received 760,000 votes. When Durbin last ran in 2014, he won with 1.9 million votes. Illinois has 12.9 million people; Utah has 2.9 million. Yet each state gets two senators, elected by a fraction of the population, and each senator gets one vote. Thus sparsely populated conservative areas counterbalance dense urban areas, a relic of past centuries when land ownership and suffrage went together. Cropland can’t vote, but it might as well.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday approved the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, 11 to 9, — Lee voting for, Durbin against, the rest breaking down along pure party lines. Once upon a time, the Senate needed a “super-majority” — 60 votes — to approve a judicial appointment. In 2013, Democrats, tired to Republican obstructionism, did away with that requirement for federal judges except Supreme Court justices. Now the Senate is poised to change the rules so that Supreme Court justices, who are appointed for life, can be approved on a simple majority, or 51 votes, sinking further into the corrosive partisanship that has increasingly paralyzed our government for years.

The Senate once considered itself a great deliberative body. Daniel Webster. Stephen Douglas. They debated. They listened to each others’ speeches. Then C-SPAN came along and the senators started to talk to the cameras in an empty room.

When dialogue dies, when reason is gone, all you have left is power. And in the United States, power comes from the ballot box. One might have imagined the election of Donald Trump would have electrified groups he obviously disdains: Hispanics, Muslims, women, minorities. Maybe that’s coming. We’ve seen big protests. Electoral registration drives, not so much, even as Republican legislatures nationwide pass punitive voter ID laws under the sham of preventing fraud.

Indifference. Gerrymandering. Voter suppression. At this point it seems voting has become an act of faith, a prayer to something bigger than us all, something once holy that nobody seems to believe in anymore.



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