In 1992, the following article appeared in The New Yorker. At the time, I thought it was one of the best essays I'd ever read about voting; ten years later, I still think so. I have a tradition of posting this essay on Election Day, a tradition I'm continuing today. And yeah, it's an egregious violation of copyright, but I'm willing to overlook it this once.
By Roger Angell
I vote at the uptown Y, on Lexington Avenue, which I visit otherwise only for the occasional string quartet or poetry reading. Voting, like uplift, encourages boredom and a sense of high purpose within me, and turns the trick, I've noticed, better than Beethoven or Brodsky. At the Y, nothing has changed. Around the room, the machines' shabby curtains snap open and bang shut; the vestal poll-watchers bend low over their thick volumes; and once again I have forgotten the number of my assembly district. Redirected, I sign my name above an amazing column of perfect prior replicas, in various inks: my straight A's in civics. I get in line and, for this once, don't mind its length or slowness. Inside at last, I flip the pleasing levers and then check my "X"s one more time; it's all done so quickly that I linger a moment longer, examining the unfamiliar names and parties over on the less populated part of the display, and marveling at such zeal and hope. Then I grab the lever, record myself with a manly fling, and walk out, shriven, to go to work. All that day -- it never fails -- I am pervaded by a sense of calm, dumb goodness; exactly the way I used to feel after church, on Sundays long ago.
A woman I once met in London said that she had been a friend of Bertrand Russell's, and told me that she had last seen him at a luncheon one day, late in his very long life. Forehandedly, she had come up with a question for the great man, which she put to him over the soup. She reminded him that he was not only the world's best-known atheist but now also perhaps the world's oldest atheist. What would he say, she wanted to know, if when the moment came, it turned out that he had been wrong all this time and now found himself standing outside the Pearly Gates? Russell's eyes lit up, she told me, and he responded with eagerness. "Why, I should say," he cried, in his high, thin voice, "I should say, 'God, you gave us insufficient evidence!'"
I bring this up here because Lord Russell's reply expresses almost exactly the way I feel about the democratic process these days. I have fallen a long way from the hot certainties of my twenties and thirties, when I would argue politics with my friends and family by the hour and the day and the night, convinced of their error and quite sure that my knowledge of world and national events, and of how this senator and that representative had come down on various issues, would clear their hearts and minds and bring them to the light. I fired off burning letters to my congressman and dialed Western Union before bedtime with still another telegram to the White House. No more. I have no wish to sort out here what happened to me, what happened to us all, when our politics went onto the tube, for we all know that story by heart. We are consumers of politics now, and hardly participants at all. If President Bush represents God in this transposed parable, then I see his image everywhere -- not just in Republican election commercials but in his televised news conferences and in speeches and declarations and photo opportunities -- but find insufficient evidence that he exists at all in relation to me, a voter. And what has faded as well is not just my belief in my President but my faith in the godlike powers I once believed we all possessed, which would allow us someday, after immense struggles, to solve some of our common problems. That has almost gone, I'm sorry to say, and it's a greater loss.
Almost. I am not as strong and clear as Bertrand Russell (who is?), and I sometimes sense that there remains a wishful warm spot inside me, a stubborn coal, that keeps me from absolute doubt about this ancient, worn down system, or from cold cynicism about some other surviving liberties. On the morning after Election Day, I will read the Times at length, finding gloom or cheer in the returns, and then I'll search out the totals in the Presidential balloting, and, over to the right in my candidate's column, count the millions of votes there, down to the very last number. "That's me!" I will whisper, and, at the moment, perhaps feel once again the absurd conviction that that final number, the starboard digit, is something -- go figure -- I would still die for, if anyone cared.