If it's true that we protect most carefully that which we treasure most dearly, we Americans must not treasure the right to vote nearly as much as we say we do.
All the hullabaloo over the last couple of weeks, supposedly about the sanctity of an individual's right to vote, was obviously not about that at all. All the caterwauling was about the worry of losing.
If we really thought an individual ballot was as sacred as we claim it to be, we would never have allowed ourselves to get into the pickle from which we may or may not have emerged when you read these words. We should have seen this smashup coming way down the road.
Oddly, of course, the loudest bellyachers now are the very people who helped get us into this mess. Folks who thought we could enact measures like the "motor-voter" bill or the "walk-up-register-and-vote" idea are the same kind of people who would try to run a bank by stacking $20 bills a foot high on the counter and asking customers to make their own withdrawals on the honor system.
But it's not an especially good time for finger-pointing. The fact is that all of us have been way too quiet for too many years while our society has increasingly trashed what we piously said we treasured. I have known, for example, for 10 years that the name of one of my daughters remained on the voter registration rolls of my precinct even though she had married and moved to another state. I grumbled and groused to the precinct officials-but confess that I never took the matter further.
My suspicions were aroused, however, a couple of weeks before the Nov. 7 election. We were encouraged in North Carolina to help reduce crowding at the polls by voting early. To do so, we had to go to unfamiliar voting locations-where the officials also were unfamiliar with us. I went, intent on testing the system.
"Belz," I said to the poll clerk, who sought to help me by rattling off three possible first names for me to choose from. "Joel," I responded. But then, instead of asking me to confirm who I was by giving my address, she read my address to me and asked for a simple yes or no. No other identification was asked for.
Mildly alarmed at the looseness of the process, I went back to my office and asked an adventuresome employee of WORLD to head for the same polling site and attempt to vote in the name of another of my daughters who is also still on the roll but no longer in town. She too was asked for no identification of any sort, was authorized in writing to vote, but prudently chose not to break the law by doing so.
And then on election day, still a third daughter, after voting at her own precinct, came back to our family's home voting location to try to vote in the name of her older sister. Once more, no checking of any sort occurred.
Net result: Within the scope of my own family, in just one election cycle, and with minimal effort, I could easily have arranged to cast at least two totally phony votes.
All that was before I had a clue what a historically beleaguered election this was destined to be. Butterfly ballots in West Palm Beach, illegally extended poll hours in downtown St. Louis, cigarette bribes in Milwaukee, motor voters turned away in Des Moines, and prematurely called Florida results by all the networks-what we had was an overwhelming portrait of a society that pretends to takes its electoral process seriously but in fact does nothing of the sort. Only when we find an important election slipping away from us do any of us on either side finally get serious about setting things straight.
My guess is that we'll feign incredible surprise, whistle in low tones, talk with great concern to each other about the near miss we barely survived, and then quite soon go on with business as usual. We'll do that in part because in this case, as in most of life, we're not really so concerned about the failure of justice as we are about losing the immediate round. Once the sting of loss has faded a bit, the important matters of righteousness and equity will also wilt and wither from our list of national priorities.
For those of us who are not just Americans, but biblically instructed Christians as well, the reminders are doubly ominous. For we Christians are too often experts at piously pretending to treasure the sacred things of life, but getting upset only when our personal comfort zone is invaded. We can hardly expect society at large to act on higher principle than we exhibit ourselves.