Governing ourselves

October 28th, 2020


On November 3, millions of U.S. citizens will share the same experience: voting in local, state and federal elections at their local polling place. For a process that is administered at the state and county levels, this experience is remarkably similar throughout the country. 

If you vote on November 3, you’re likely to arrive at a community center, school, church or library on a street crowded with candidate signs. You’ll probably stand in a long line, perhaps chatting with your neighbors or hastily researching candidates for obscure local offices. You might wonder whether the person ahead of you in line plans to vote in agreement with you or not. Eventually, you’ll confirm your identity and polling place with an election official who has been hired for the day. That official will mark that you’ve voted and send you on to cast your ballot. 

You’ll make your final choices at a station designed to keep your vote a secret, turn in your ballot, and, finally, receive the all-important “I voted” sticker. Maybe you’ll walk away feeling hopeful. Maybe you’ll post a picture on social media proudly displaying your sticker. No matter what, you will likely feel some satisfaction at having done your part to participate in the democratic process. 

Of course, in 2020 this ritual will look different than it has in the past. Most voters and election officials will be masked. Voter turnout and, consequently, the length of the line at each polling place, could be enormous. Record numbers of people have already participated in early and absentee voting in the run-up to Election Day. With so many votes being cast by mail, results are unlikely to be certain on the night of the election. 

For many, all these considerations are overshadowed by the fractious environment of this particular presidential contest. Even when the outcome of the 2000 presidential election was in turmoil, anxiety about the electoral process itself was not nearly as high as it currently is. 

Yet, voting remains one of the most direct ways we connect to our neighbors and to our government. How do we think about those relationships in 2020?


This year I’ve been working at an in-person absentee polling place for the month of October. I’ve enjoyed meeting my neighbors and making sure their voting experience goes smoothly. I’ve also had a front-row seat to much of the anxiety surrounding this election. I field questions about the voting process and the postal system, explain why it’s impossible for one person to vote twice in South Carolina, and point people to the hand sanitizer many times every day. I see and hear a great deal of misinformation being dispersed on all sides, and I’m reminded that a representative democracy can’t function unless most citizens have a basic level of trust in the process, in the system and in one another. 

First, the citizens of a democracy must share a belief that democracy is a good form of government. This includes not only a general belief that everyone should have a voice, but also a commitment to abiding by the decisions reached through the voting process. With tensions so high between sharply polarized groups, people on all sides have speculated about what could happen if a large portion of the population is unwilling to accept the results of an election — in other words, if they do not want to abide by the social contract of democracy. 

Second, the citizens of a democracy must be assured that the election process itself is not compromised and that the outcome of an election can’t be manipulated. If voting rights are restricted or if the process is compromised by violence or fraud, the election won’t reflect the will of the people. 

As an election worker, I help to ensure that my local elections are free, fair and secure. But in order to do that, my neighbors must also have some sense of trust in me, whether they know me or not, because I also have the ability, as an election worker, to interpret rules unfairly in hopes of bending the results toward my preferred outcomes. Many voters I encounter make it clear they know that too. 

If we have no trust that our neighbors care about us or about our shared home, we will not be able to form or maintain institutions, including governments, to make decisions about our lives together. 

Institutional trust 

It’s not terribly controversial to say that our democratic system in the United States could be improved to better ensure that election outcomes truly reflect the will of the people. Several ideas from changing the process by which votes are counted to encouraging more than two dominant political parties to reducing gerrymandered districts and increasing voting access would be worthwhile to consider for leaders looking to strengthen popular trust in the system going forward. 

However, each of us also has the ability and, perhaps, the responsibility to earn the trust of our neighbors right now — by being neighborly. That doesn’t mean that we’ll never disagree, but it does mean that we treat one another with respect and take responsibility for our own emotions and actions — particularly when it comes to politics. We can also bring out the best in one another by recognizing one another’s needs, wounds, hopes, and values as human beings. Even if we believe powerful people are acting in bad faith, we will not gain anything by assuming the same about our neighbors. 

For some people, voting is an abstract philosophical exercise, a matter of loyalty to their ideals. For others, it’s a way of affirming their loyalty to a political party or a set of beliefs. Still others worry that the outcome of an election could have a direct effect on their job, their rights, or their financial stability. In a truly overwhelming election year, each voter still has the power to vote, speak and act with love toward our neighbor this election week.


Building trust 

What does it mean to “trust the system”? Do we have an obligation to assume that most of our neighbors are acting in good faith? Are our laws and our Constitution enough to reassure us that the system is trustworthy? 

There are many ways to answer these questions. In order to form any kind of community or group, the people involved must agree to some sort of social contract, and all involved must generally behave as though everyone intends to honor that contract. We learn civics in school so that we understand where the system came from, how it has worked in the past, and how we should expect it to work in the future. 

It is also true that, since the beginning of the United States, most of the systems put in place have favored some people over others and often excluded many altogether. Most obviously, Black citizens were prevented from voting, first by slavery, then by Jim Crow laws, and now by voter-suppression efforts. Many groups, for good reason, have never had the comfort of simply trusting the system. 

If we hope to rebuild trust in our institutions after a historically polarized election, we each have an obligation to be trustworthy ourselves, and also to demand that our elected officials demonstrate integrity. Moreover, choosing to trust our historically-marginalized neighbors means taking their experiences seriously, and even revisiting some of our oldest institutions to ask whether they were designed to achieve freedom and equity for all.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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