The Election Day I won't forget
Have you voted yet today? Will you be sure to vote today?
Every Election Day, I wonder about the millions of American citizens who stay home, choosing not to vote, letting other people select their political leaders. That sort of apathy baffles me, and I can’t help contrasting it with the fervor that I observed in a country that was re-discovering the joys of the democratic vote.
In 1984 I traveled to El Salvador, to serve as an election observer as that country conducted its first truly open democratic elections in a half-century. It was an unforgettable experience. I met the leaders of both major parties, and attended the victory party of José Napoleon Duarte, who was elected president. But my lasting impressions of El Salvador were of the people who lined the streets in the relentless blazing sunshine, sometimes waiting for hours to cast their votes.
The heat was not the only danger that voters faced that day. The rebels of the Faramundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) had threatened to disrupt the elections. If FMLN guerillas chose to attack a voting station, those hundreds of innocent people, lined up along the sides of the roads, would have been easy targets. Still they waited patiently, vulnerable but determined.
Watching those long lines make their way slowly toward the voting booths, in one town after another, I was struck by the fundamental decency of the people as well as by their resolve. El Salvador was a deeply divided country at that time. The two major parties, the Christian Democrats (CD) and the National Republican Alliance (Arena) were bitter rivals. Each side truly believed that a victory by their opponents would be disastrous for the country.
Moreover, with the civil war still raging around them, the elections were always tinged with the threat of violence. In the capital city, San Salvador, a helicopter landed in the little park outside our hotel on the morning before the election and disgorged a platoon of combat-ready troops, who ran down the street to parts unknown. Some of my fellow observers, who flew across the country while my team traveled by car, reported that their plane had been hit by gunfire from the ground. All during the day, lights would flicker and die, as the FMLN bombed electrical relay stations.
At every polling place that I saw there were two official observers--one from the CD, one from Arena—carefully watching as each marked ballot was pushed through a slot into a clear plexiglass container. The voting was secret, but the collection of ballots was very public, to prevent fraud. After casting a ballot, each voter was required to dip his finger in ink, which (I tested) did not come off for days, to guard against repeaters.
Late in the afternoon, my group of observers visited a large gymnasium in San Salvador, which had been set up to accommodate the voters who were not able to return to their native towns. There were dozens of tables scattered across the room, each for a certain voting district, each with its own observers from the CD and Arena. As I wandered around this enormous room, watching the voters, I was struck by the fact that there were hundreds of people in the building, and only one narrow door. If the guerrillas hit this building, I realized, we would all be sitting ducks. And as that unsettling thought was in my head, all the lights went out.
Then I witnessed something beautiful.
Dozens of cigarette lighters flickered, candles were lit. Light gradually returned to the hall. When my eyes could focus again I looked around, and saw the same sight at one table after another. The two observers from the CD and Arena had locked their arms together across the top of the ballot box, holding it in place and blocking the entry slot. These avowed enemies, who had been squabbling all day about voter registration, were united on one thing: they were determining to preserve the integrity of the voting. That gymnasium seemed to be a very dangerous place for a few moments. But the observers didn’t save themselves; they saved the ballots. To them the vote was a sacred thing.
Go out and vote, if you haven’t voted already. And when you come home, say a prayer of thanksgiving that you have the chance to vote. Many people have risked their lives for that chance.
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