What a funny feeling, walking into the Community Center on Rock City Road to vote and there in the lobby, all closed up, mutely, moodily covered and cast aside, the old voting machines. What tales they could tell of elections past, from presidents back to John F. Kennedy and such wild days as Nixon-McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Bush v. Gore…and past local elections when the clickers got worn down over Bill Harder’s name and Maurice Hinchey’s. Even those who never was, had a shot, could stand alone in that booth, behind the curtain, as alone as Michael Collins when he flew the command module Columbia behind the moon for the Apollo 11 mission. You’d breathe the rarefied air inside the voting booth, the unsullied air of democracy, the choice yours alone, the reassuring mechanical clunk of the lever over the name of the candidate you chose, in whose hands you were placing the future…it felt like something. You could change your mind and unclick the lever and choose another line or another candidate. You could linger over the choice, mop your brow and think for a moment, puzzle over a proposition you hadn’t read about, and when you’d finally made all your choices, you’d reach for the lever on the bottom and decisively pull it over to the right and it would hit its mark, as surely as the gear shift lever of a 1952 Bentley Continental slides into second gear. The curtains would draw back and you’d step out into the world again, a new citizen, fresh from performing the single most important action of democracy, surely a moment to be savored.
And there they sit, those lovely mechanical bulls, having performed faithfully, still in working condition, made for one purpose only, that of advancing freedom, with all the hopes and fears of an idealistic society. You’d step out into a new beginning from those old voting booths. But now they’re idle. Now you get a coded ballot and you sit at a table with cardboard dividers, mocking cheap office styles, and you mark in a circle. Someone asked me what happens if you go outside the lines. What happens if you want to change your mind? And then you get a folder to cover it up and you feed it into the digital counter like you’d feed a dollar into a change machine. I expected a couple of quarters to come out. It is a mutely cold experience, with none of the headiness, none of the idealism of our system evident, just another transaction. I suppose there’ll be an iPhone app for voting before long and I suppose that it’ll be only a matter of time before someone hacks into system and steals an election.
I see these articles about how Cubans have lovingly taken care of American cars from the 1950s and before, how they still work and have great value, if a society values them. The old voting machines can’t be sold, just like the Freeman can’t sell its printing press, which is only a little more than a decade old. But they still work and they lend a much greater symbolism to the experience of voting, letting you know that what you’ve done is important and that it is yours alone. Such things, like bringing back old style ball parks, should be considered. Free the old machines!++