Our ambivalence: Voting both ways

Elections 2014

Meg Elison newest mug_MDrummond

I am always earnest when I show up to vote.

I dress up, usually in some subtle combination of campaign-trail colors. I pick a blue-and-white dress and wear red jewelry. I pick a red dress with a blue belt. I am a dork all the way; I update Facebook to gloat about voting, and I Instagram my sticker on the way out.

I read my entire ballot. I research the candidates. This year, the mayoral race in Oakland is nothing short of a battlefield; my favorite author wrote her first-ever endorsement of a political candidate to ask us to vote for Rebecca Kaplan. I show up to vote armed with information and optimism. I believe that my vote counts.

I am always reluctant to vote.

I force myself into the trappings of patriotism, choosing to believe that we can become what we pretend to be rather than what we are doomed to settle for. I measure the weight of my vote against the billions of dollars it takes to put a person in office and keep them there. I tweet cryptic and cynical things about the process.

I choose the lesser evil, most of the time. I scrutinize candidates for the things I will not tolerate, rather than seeking real alignment. I will reject out of hand any attempt to restrict the rights of women or any candidate who supports those attempts. I show up to vote exhausted and bereft of hope, choosing between slick money-making fiends and champagne socialists. I don’t believe that my vote counts.

I came of age to vote in a terrible time. I watched George W. Bush steal the election in 2000 and then inexplicably reign triumphant in 2004. I watched people all over the world risk their lives to flash ink-stained fingers at the cameras; I watched idiots take credit for introducing democracy to those brave people. I have watched recount after recount; I have seen pictures of governor’s dicks and read the transcripts of their failed airport bathroom hookups. I am watching the Voting Rights Amendment get dismantled right before my eyes, like time being turned back by the enemies of progress.

I know everything about U.S. politics.

I know enough to understand that I must show up to vote. I have always showed up to vote with ID, because I know that I cannot trust the process that has only afforded this right to women since 1920 and tries every year to cut more people out of it. I have always been kind to poll workers; those tireless retired women with their loud brooches and their stern glances and their disdain for electronic voting machines. They believe that my vote counts. They hold the grim yet cheerful line.

I am moved enough by the flag-waving jingoist bullshit of my native country that, looking around the line at the polling place, chokes me up. Like a Rockwell painting, we are sentimentally blended. Yesterday, I voted between two wordless veiled women and a young black father who brought his two children into the booth with them to show them how it works. In line not far behind us, there was lively conversation in Mandarin and two blind girls who got off the bus together to come here. For one brief shining moment, I believe it all. That all men were created equal and that today is the day we prove it.

I am jaded enough by the money-shoveling capitalist soullessness of my native country that standing in line to vote seems like kissing the rod that beats me. I am free to vote; everyone in this line is free to vote according to the dictates of our own conscience. But our choices are served to us by the Pepsi-or-Coke binary of a system so corrupt that it equates corporations with people and money with speech. I know that my conscience will never be clear, whether I vote or not. Either by voting I affirm to office the person who destroys the rent cap or slashes school funding or kills children with drone strikes … or by not voting, I allow that person to be elected. For one bleak, terrible moment, I believe in nothing. That power corrupts, and this is the day we choose the face betrayal will wear.

What I choose in the voting booth is not the order of the world as I think it should be. The people I would elect to office would never run; the laws I would see enacted will never be proposed. All that I have the power to choose is whether I want to try or not try. Whether I’d rather participate in a potentially empty gesture on the off chance that it may mean something or whether I’m prepared to admit that nothing I do affects my community and that I have no voice and no power.

I believe both these things. I am all-powerful, the U.S. voter, the red, white and blue optimist. I am all apathy, the U.S. realist, the all-black defeatist who can’t even be bothered to try.

But only one of us gets out of bed in the morning.

Meg Elison is a senior staff writer at the Daily Californian. Contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @paganmeghan.