In the old days it was a real voting booth, not the flimsy plastic contraption on stilts we use now. You’d step up to a voting machine and pull the big mechanical handle, and a heavy curtain would close around you. You were inside one of the special places of democracy now, like the Lincoln Memorial or the observation seats above the chamber of the House of Representatives or a big, warming crowd of noisy Hoosiers protesting together outside the Statehouse on a brisk late-winter’s day or your own kitchen table late at night when you are writing a letter to your senator. Once you pulled that curtain closed, you were there in the little booth where it all happens.
And you could concentrate on the rows of candidates’ names and on the small levers next to each name. When you voted by physically moving a lever next to a name, there’d be a small, satisfying click. You could actually hear the little metallic pieces of the great machinery of democracy in motion. After choosing all your candidates, you’d pull the big handle one more time and the curtain would open. You stepped out into the light a little taller and prouder. You were a citizen of a republic on election day.
But it’s been a grim, embarrassing year for our republic. When I walked into the County City building on Wednesday to vote early, I wasn’t sure I’d find that old feeling of pride. For one thing, there were none of the dignified old voting booths, just two rows of those flimsy folding plastic things. The lobby was buzzing with people going through security, though, showing ID cards, getting instructions and making small talk with poll workers, and I could feel the old energy coming back to me. I stepped up to the blue plastic station and carefully blacked in the ovals next to my candidates. I rejected one ballot initiative because it sounded like it was written by the phoniest advertising executive of all time. I filled the No circle with special care for that one--you can fool some of the people some of the time, dude, but Marjorie Smith didn’t raise any dummies. I folded my completed ballot and slipped it into the brown envelope that bore my signature and carried it across the lobby. People all around me were going about the business of voting and helping people vote. For early voters, that lobby has become the best sort of room where it happens.
You may know “the room where it happens” from the musical Hamilton. In a wonderful song by that name, Alexander Hamilton gives Aaron Burr the brush-off so he can have dinner with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. In their private meeting, in exchange for political favors, they barter for the location of the nation’s new capital. That’s a different meaning of the room where it happens. We Americans also call it the smoke-filled room—named after a cigar-clouded meeting in a private room in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel where, they say, powerful US Senators stayed up late one night in 1920 and hand-picked the Republican candidate for president. In the musical, the room where it happens is the place where a few powerful people run the government out of sight of citizens. We still have that problem today, which helps explain this year’s angry electorate. When we vote, we send a bunch of fallible human beings to Indy or Lansing or Washington DC where they can be corrupted by life in the room where it happens. The only way to protect our newly-elected officials from temptation is to give them steady, pointed guidance with hard-hitting, never-let-up active citizenship. Skillful citizens can keep them honest while they’re doing the people’s work. Otherwise, democracy dies in the tomb--in the room--where it happens.