Communion at the Voting Booth


I wasn’t prepared for what happened to me in the voting booth.

I’d thought it out carefully. I’d vote around 10:30, after the people who worked in offices had had their morning chance. It was a good plan. My polling place is in the lobby of a high-rise housing project in Manhattan. There are about six electoral districts that vote there. My ED had two voting machines. (There was only one for the primary.) 

Things looked pretty well organized. First you gave a worker your street address, and she told you which ED you were and what table you had to sign in at. That line was my longest wait–but only ten minutes. I was voter number 388. Spirits were high. One family was there with their children, taking them into the voting booth.

The line for the booths was only a few minutes. My card was collected and the machine was set for me by a fiercely focused African American woman who called me “dear” as she held the curtain for me.

I always forget that I have to cock the machine by throwing the big red lever to the right, so at first I couldn’t get the small toggle by Obama’s name to go down. A moment of panic until I remembered the lever thing.

Click, click, click, click, down the list of candidates, my congresswoman, judges, my state assemblyman–an impressive young man I’m happy is running again.

I stood there for a moment looking at what I had done, looking at the toggles that were turned down beside the names and the Xs in the boxes. I felt two things at once. I felt both deeply centered inside myself and standing outside space and time. It was a moment like no other. I took a long breath and swung the big red lever back to the left.

And then I began to sob. Wracking, shaking sobs welling up from that center I’d been inhabiting, as tears poured from my eyes.

I steadied myself against the lever, as I recall, inhaled, and turned to leave the booth. As I pulled the curtain aside, I met the eyes of the woman who had let me into the booth. 

She looked at me. She more than looked at me, she took me in. “Did you do it?” she said. I nodded. She nodded, too.

And the rest of my tears began to flow. Outside the building, in the sun, I leaned against the brick wall and cried some more until I was able to collect myself.

I spent this spring and summer working on Oxford University Press’s Encyclopedia of African American History from 1896 to the Present(In other words from Plessy v. Ferguson to Mos Def.) I’ve worked on many of OUP’s African American titles in the past ten years. The set is locked down and ready to go to the presses, except for the open sections that an editorial team is waiting to fill in based on what happens today.

I have worked, as I said, on many of these projects, on the biographical dictionaries, on other encyclopedia sets, on the collected works of W. E. B. Du Bois. It’s been a privilege and an honor and so humbling to learn the life stories of so many astounding men and women. But this encyclopedia of events, half of which happened in my lifetime, sunk me deeper and deeper into despair as I absorbed how pervasive and unacknowledged, unseen, and unknown the racism of this country is.

This morning I got to push back at all that. This morning I got to say–despite what I absorbed growing up with de facto segregation in the public schools of Pennsylvania, where the black kids sat in the back row and rode in the back of the bus–No. This is the person who is best for the job. This is the person I want to represent me to the rest of the world.

“Did you do it?” she asked. I nodded.


9 Responses to “Communion at the Voting Booth”

  1. Katharine Says:

    Beautiful. Amen.

  2. Anne Says:

    Carol, I have goose bumps. I voted just before noon. Our usual turnout is under 200 in the whole day. At noon today I was #277. Lots of people came in as Bob and I voted and then had a grand tour of the new firehouse. There were more people of color than I had ever seen at our poll. One of the poll workers was a man who is there every year. The others were new to me. And there was a woman who seemed to be a poll watcher, separate from the logging in and tending the machines.

    I pulled the lever over to close the curtains and proceeded to flip the levers on the Working Families line to give that group a boost and still vote for my candidates. At first when I saw Obama/Biden I felt aw shock of nonrecognition. Then I realized exactly what I was about to do and, after voting on the question and surveying my work I pulled the lever back and exclaimed to Bob and anyone around me: “I did it!” It was a moment I hope I will always remember. We are making history in so many ways! I’m going to forward to you a wonderful brief video of Charles who worked for Obama in the Boulder, CO office. Love, Anne

  3. Cat Chapin-Bishop Says:

    Exactly. Oh, exactly…

    I have never cried after voting before…

  4. Kathy Says:

    Carol, this was exquisite. I felt wonderful when I pressed the button for Obama and saw the red X light up (my polling place has those new electronic machines!), and I double- and triple-checked to make sure I had pressed the right button (no OCD here!), but I didn’t have that strong outward emotional reaction you did. This may sound weird, but I almost envy you that. Because I felt, and still am feeling, so much inside, and being able to cry like that would have been cathartic.

  5. Ray from Tampa Says:

    I didn’t get to vote – since I’m still (after 25 years) a Brit living here in the USA. But I did sense the historic nature of yesterday’s vote.

    I too envy Carol’s deep emotional reaction / catharsis. I’m in a rather somber mood – my mind is excited, but not the rest of me. Is it simply anti-climax, emotional overload, or tiredness (I was an a Democratic Celebration in Indian Rocks Beach, FL until about 2:00 am!)?

  6. Carol Says:

    Anne, thanks for sharing your story and for giving voice to that shock of nonrecognition and then understanding what you were about to do. Yes! I was experiencing that, too.

    I wish there were some way to know how many people cried as they cast their votes for Obama. I’ve heard from several other people who wept, Cat.

    My emotion surprised me. I was excited and looking forward to voting, but I didn’t expect sobs. Much of it had to do with all those large Oxford University Press projects I’ve worked on over the past years. I’ve heard so many of the stories repeatedly now, told from slightly different angles or with different focus. There was a story in today’s New York Times about those African Americans, still alive today, who had worked to register voters in the 1960s that meant a lot to me to read. Thanks for stopping by, Kathy and Ray.

    Finally, be it noted that I’ve been totally unable to work today! I was up until 2 a.m. watching TV. I’m wrung out. The only thing for it is to go to my Laughter Yoga club in an hour and laugh my head off for thirty minutes!

  7. Neil Schlager Says:

    Carol, this is wonderful. I know exactly what you mean when you say that you were surprised by your emotion. I voted early (about 10 days ago) and didn’t feel any special emotion other than pride. But on Tuesday night, watching the events, listening to Obama’s incredible victory speech, seeing the sea of humanity in Grant Park–not 3 blocks from where I used to live!–I too was overcome. Tears, smiles, and a state of disbelief. Then, just before I finally went to bed, I heard the news that Prop 8 in California was destined to pass. Tears of joy changed to tears of grief and sadness. Two days later, I am still awash in these conflicting emotions. As a mutual friend of ours said, though, “gay marriage will come. Just look at how far we’ve come on civil rights for African Americans. Look at how many setbacks there have been.” So true, so true. We carry on.

  8. Will T Says:

    When I voted I was excited. I think this was the first time I had ever voted for a Presidential candidate that I was excited about. When I started seeing the results, I felt as if we were opening the windows on that first warm day in spring and letting in the fresh air. It was only when I heard John Lewis talking and saw the tears on Jesse Jackson’s face that it struck my heart what a momentous day this was.

    Then on Wednesday when I saw the results on Proposition 8, it was like the joy was sucked out. We’ve come a long way but we have a long way to go. The change we need is a change in hearts. Politicians don’t change hearts. When enough hearts change, the politicians will follow.

    Will T

  9. Communion at the Voting Booth : OUPblog Says:

    […] in A-Featured , African American Studies , Current Events , Politics on November 7, 2008 | Carol Holmes is a freelance copyeditor and proofreader who has worked on many projects for Oxford University […]

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