Joy to the polls!

Dear Willow:

I love voting.

Every time I get to do it, I feel the same sense of excitement, nerves, and responsibility. I’m a little anxious I’ll do it wrong, somehow, even though I don’t think I ever have. I love the public secrecy of the ritual. I love the feeling of civic pride in the air or – in the absence of pride – determination to do our part to shape a better America.

Casting a vote, one single vote among millions, is an act of collective hope. And that feeling of hope is palpable at the polls, too.

But this year…this year is extraordinary.

I know you’re all pretty attuned to the news, so you may already know this, but millions of Americans have already voted. There’s been an absolute explosion in early voting.

As of a couple of days ago, at least 80 million citizens had cast a ballot. That’s more than half of the total votes from 2016. In Texas, early voting has actually surpassed total voting for 2016. Young Americans – typically not high-turnout voters – are showing up in droves at early voting sites across the country.

As a staunch believer in democracy, for all of its problems and frustrations, this is beyond exciting to me. Americans are engaged, excited, determined, and whatever the outcome, that alone is a boost to my spirits.

Part of the surge in early voting is certainly because of the hotly contested Presidential race and the polarization, anger, and outrage that is swirling around it. But it can’t be denied that COVID is playing a big role, too, and not just as a political issue.

I know I was apprehensive about the idea of standing with others on Election Day, trying to maneuver crowds, worrying about droplets with every inhalation, dodging dirty looks if I happen to cough once.

So, to avoid that scenario, I was one of the millions who voted early. I went to the Broadway Armory on a rainy Thursday last week and got very lucky. No line. The volunteer staff gave clear instructions, acted swiftly and cheerfully, and it all felt safe and good. Except that they’d run out of “I Voted” stickers, which was more disappointing than it probably should have been. (I do like sharing the post-voting selfie – I’m sure you’re not surprised by that.)

But my experience is certainly not universal.

We’ve seen reports of hours-long waits in Georgia, Texas, and New York. Lines were long on sunny days in Chicago, and Oak Park, and Indianapolis.

But wow. Americans are so engaged this year that they’re willing to spend hours in line to cast their one lone vote. That’s inspiring.

And as they’re waiting, little bits of joy have popped up. Some of them from an organization literally called “Joy to the Polls.” It’s a nonpartisan group of artists and activists who are using music, dance, and art to keep voters’ spirits up and, simultaneously, discourage any attempts at voter suppression or intimidation. In Philadelphia, they orchestrated a Cha-Cha Slide for those standing in line. In other places, they have made parade-style floats with bright colors and music and dancers and driven them past polling places to smiles and cheers.

This movement is becoming larger than one organization. Ordinary folks (and celebrities) are assembling playlists for when you’re stuck in a long voting line and posting them on Twitter. Others are bringing food to polling places, to help support voters who may not have come prepared with snacks. Ariana Grande sent pizza to lines in Florida. Paul Rudd personally handed out cookies in Brooklyn.

All of this makes me tingle with pride and delight. Voting is a collective but essentially solitary act, which means it’s really easy to scare individual people off, or make them think their vote doesn’t matter, or play on inertia or apathy or – this year – fear of infection.

By injecting joy and food and music and dance, these supporters are turning this solitary act into a true community event. They’re vaccinating against fear and weariness by using known de-escalation techniques and making voting…well, fun.

This election cycle, I expected solemnity and determination. I expected protestors and trouble at polling sites. I even half expected to see folks with visible weaponry milling about looking threatening, although that didn’t seem super likely in deep blue Chicago.

But I confess, I did not expect joy and levity.

And I LOVE it.


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