A most solemn ceremony of democracy is enacted With quiet dignity, voters cast ballots

November 04, 1992|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Staff Writer

It was like a wedding, beginning with the handwritten sign instructing everyone to enter quietly, in a show of respect for the ceremony to come. Everyone entering Venable High School on East 34th Street complied by standing quietly in an assigned line, in order to vote.

"I almost cried when I went in," said Amy Gibson, who teaches English at another school. "I love to vote. I love to vote."

People entered silently, heads down, and emerged looking more relaxed. They smiled. They waved at neighbors and at strangers, as if everyone had just left the wedding of a bride and groom who were unmistakably smitten.

All day yesterday, at every polling place, voters participated in the orderly marriage of democratic theory and practice.

Election Day was a ceremony with rituals no less familiar than those of a wedding or the Fourth of July. The day closed a long season of overheated rhetoric; it was the final flowering of campaign signs planted in front lawns.

It was the beginning and end of the season for groups of well-dressed men and women who swarmed the peripheries of polling places to offer leaflets with last-minute advice.

Ms. Gibson, the English teacher, arrived at Venable High with her husband, Joe Compton. They reached the election clerks seated at wooden tables, identified themselves and heard their names recited back by the clerks. Everyone was as solemn as if the school cafeteria were the nave of a cathedral. The marriage was about to proceed.

The early supporters of the Constitution foresaw how the process would work, long before the age of television. "But what is government itself," James Madison wrote in 1788, "but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?" He confidently predicted that government, and campaigns, would be much like the citizenry.

So candidates show themselves to be ambitious, generous and sometimes caring, just like the voters. And frenzied, manipulative and self-centered. Just like the voters. "If men were angels," Madison said, "no government would be necessary."

Elections, like the wheel, had to be invented. Then tinkered with, oiled and greased at regular intervals, occasionally improved. Yesterday was the opportunity to use the machinery according to American ritual.

Voters closed a curtain behind them and, in that private place, marked a computer card or tugged black levers, to start the machinery. Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured the United States beginning in 1831, marveled at the workings: "Elected magistrates do not make the American democracy flourish; it flourishes because the magistrates are elective."

"I think the system works -- of course I do," Celeste Morgan, director of the Baltimore County Human Relations Commission, said as she handed out pamphlets for the Democratic Party at Charles and 39th streets.

But the system does not always work nicely. "When I think back on the campaign," Ms. Morgan said, "I guess I'm glad it's over."

By the time the ceremony begins, people largely restrict themselves to commenting on the length of the line (long) or the beauty of the day (inspired by spring). They remember the candidates' slogans and invective. But no one was so impolite as to repeat them to the next person in line.

Almost everyone seemed to know the campaign hit list: Waffling. Inhaling (or not). Patterns of deception. Competing claims to be the true heir of Harry Truman. Character. Time for a change. Ozone.

"How to make the system better is the question that has no answer," Gary Green, of the National Kidney Foundation, said as he left his polling place in Baltimore with his 2-year-old son in his arms. "I think the two parties still don't get it. At the end, it ends up just a bunch of name-calling."

"We were talking about it at church," said Woodrow Crawford, who shook hands with a reception line of Democratic candidates at Mondawmin Mall on the last full day of the campaign. The pre-election discussion at his church, he said, was about the word "bozo."

Dignity reigned almost everywhere on Election Day. No one was seen actually crying at the ceremony. People were silent when they went behind the curtain. They smiled only after they left the room, to celebrate the marriage.

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