Voting: A Ritual

Voting: A Ritual October 31, 2014

(see this and more at’s “Public Square”:

“Voting is irrational.”

This jarring statement comes from Paul Woodruff, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas in Austin, in his wise book, REVERENCE: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (2002). It’s disturbing, but it might get at the heart of the problem of low voter participation.

Thirty-eight million people’s lives will be critically affected by the choices made on November 4 in my state. But only 25.2% of California’s registered voters cast ballots in last June’s primary election. At this abysmal level, how can our elected officials claim any kind of meaningful mandate from the people? Dozens of proposals are currently being considered to raise participation, including consolidating elections, changing the initiative system, and even the desperate idea of turning elections into lotteries.

But most suggested fixes are predicated on the assumption that voters are motivated to participate by a calculus of cold self-interest.

“Voting is a ceremony,” writes Woodruff. “It is an expression of reverence – not for our government or our laws, not for anything man-made, but for the very idea that ordinary people are more important than the juggernauts that seem to rule them.” The likelihood that any one person’s vote would decide an election is miniscule. People don’t vote because they think their ballot will decide the outcome. They do so because it is a ritual that is meaningful for them.

I’m what the county registrar calls a “permanent absentee voter”. I miss the convivial ritual of standing in line with my fellow citizens at the polling station, but the demands of my job make it hard for me to be sure I can get there on time. So I have developed a ceremony of my own. As I put my completed ballot in the mailbox, I raise my hand to my forehead and repeat these words: “I salute all Americans who risked their lives defending my sacred right and duty to vote.” I imagine the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the signing of the Constitution. I picture the joy of the slaves upon learning of their emancipation. I imagine the joy of women when they won their long fight for suffrage. I imagine soldiers celebrating the end of World War II. I imagine civil rights activists registering voters under threat from the KKK. I dream of Martin Luther King saying “I have a dream!” at the march on Washington. For a moment, I’m part of something bigger than myself. I join a long line of devoted people who have cast their ballots and their lives for our country. I don’t vote for me. I vote my love for my fellow citizens.

Before the election of 2012, the state of Florida enacted a number of policies aimed at suppressing the vote. Some districts cut back on the number of polling stations. Many black people in Florida woke up to the fact that there was an active effort to disenfranchise them. They turned out in record numbers to stand in line for many hours at polling stations, and then turned the occasion into a celebration. As the lines inched along, they sang and danced and chanted. It became a lively ritual expressing their deeply held belief in freedom and democracy. They valued voting more than ever, because of its difficulty.

In many long-time democratic nations, voter turnout is dropping. People have lost faith not only in government, but also in corporations and churches and temples. It’s a vicious cycle. We vote for politicians who don’t or can’t deliver, we lose faith in the institutions they run badly, and then we are de-motivated to vote at all. How can we get back our votivation, without having to resort to the reverse psychology of voter suppression?

I believe it starts with the heart. We have to reach deep, below our frustration with the functioning or non-functioning of our government. We have to re-awaken to the raw, real reason we vote at all: to express, ritually, our love for each other and for our country.

In my days serving churches as a pastor, I became acutely aware that the quality of a ritual makes a big difference in people’s willingness to participate in it. So let us craft new, emotionally potent ritual elements around the act of filling out our ballots. It may sound corny, but as a matter of fact, when I salute my ballot, my eyes well up with tears. Tears that flow from the heart that moves my hand to mark my ballot and put it in the mail – at every election.

Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California —

Browse Our Archives

Close Ad