Two weeks ago, I cast my mid-term election vote early at the Benton County Courthouse Annex in Bentonville. I've voted there in other elections, but in this case the atmosphere seemed different. More serious. Even though the routine county business of assessing, taxing, collecting and so forth continued in addition to the nominal stream of voters arriving and departing, I was struck with an odd feeling of quietude as I climbed the stairs and followed the signs to the polling room. I've attended wakes and visited sedate museums and historical libraries where conversation and background noise were more noticeable and enlivened than that day inside this nondescript government building.
I presented my driver's license to the cordial poll worker and answered a few simple questions confirming my address and identity in a sort of inquiry usually prefacing a delve into my MasterCard account. But in this case I was not asked for my mother's maiden name or my favorite dog breed.
I took my long card that was to become my personalized ballot. A friendly gesture from another worker directed me to my voting stand. It was all routine and, with the touch-screen technology, a silent process.
I recall my trips to vote as a young adult in Louisiana when the voting machines were metal structures the size of double-door refrigerators. An automatic privacy curtain zipped around as you pulled the lever to begin voting.
"Click, click, click" were the sounds as you scanned down the columns and pulled switches for your choices. It was steampunk compared to today's digital ATM-like equipment. Back then, you weren't given a review screen to verify your choices before finality. It was left up to you to double-check the little switches, and then pull down the vote lever. With a definitive "ka-chunk" the machine validated your choices; the curtain flew open as if in a "Let's Make a Deal" prize reveal and you stepped back into public view.
A poll worker approached the side of the metal behemoth and turned a crank similar to starting a Model-T. Another, louder "ka-chunk" added your vote to the mechanism and the slate was cleared for the next voter.
And yet with all those steps, mechanical intricacies and human intervention, election integrity was rarely called into question. But, of course, this was pre-Trump.
In my most recent vote, I slipped my card into the ballot box and received my "I Voted" sticker. I was allowed to keep the shiny touch-screen stylus with the same message. I returned to my car. Settling in behind the wheel I started to quietly, momentarily cry. It was a little startling. Apparently all the strife, the innuendos and the outright lies calling into question our votes specifically and our democracy overall since November 2020 had come to a head as I sat there. A small dam holding back a rivulet of stress and fear had broken. The emotion trickled out.
I'm old, so I recall a point in the U.S. timeline when we thought all may be coming to an end. War was raging both in faraway Asian jungles and at home. That would have been the 1960s: a charismatic president, his would-be president brother and a Moses-like civil rights leader all assassinated. And then several other not-so-famous innocent ones bombed or shot to death -- ordinary children and adults exercising their rights to protest against war or racial inequity. Or even daring to attend Sunday school.
But we survived. I'm praying we can continue so.
Maybe my few tears were stress of the madding crowd or maybe my blood sugar was a little low that morning. Either way, a lesson was taught. Amid right-wing political shouting, attacks on the Capitol and the attempted kidnapping and murder of the second in succession to the presidency, you have to just step back from the fray and set out on occasional errands of distraction and self-preservation.
Predecessors knew this during the Great Depression and World War II. They escaped to the picture show for glimpses of gorgeous people, dazzling riches and extravagantly staged dance routines in stark contrast to soup lines or ration books beyond the lobby.
So having voted early with no further say-so, my escape last night -- election night -- was to the Walton Arts Center. As the polls closed Tuesday. I was in my front-row seat immersed in the razzle-dazzle of the musical "Chicago" finding its fictional murders and celebrity criminals momentarily preferable. Real crimes and misdemeanors were still outside waiting as usual.