I moved to New York just over a year ago, when the circus of the primaries was really beginning to gather momentum. Ever since, my time in the city has been punctuated by the beats of this election: by the Reverend Wright scandal and Obama’s stunning response in Philadelphia; by Hillary Clinton’s eventual concession speech; by the debates, the polls, the helicopter hunting; CNN’s interactive projection screens; the campaigning emails; Joe the Plumber and even the candidates’ YouTube crumping ‘dance off’. The day of the election having finally arrived, therefore, and being unable to vote myself, I thought I’d get out into the furthest reaches of the city to witness, first hand, the sharp end of American Democracy – the moment when New Yorkers step through those black curtains, away from all of the above, and find themselves in the voting booth faced with a red handle, a board of switches and the consequences of their own decision.
I began at a school in Inwood, at 191st, at the northern tip of Manhattan. It was early, and the pre-work rush to vote was not of the same volume as it was downtown, where there were queues around the block. Voters wandered into the main hall, peering over glasses at clutched utility bills, voting cards and IDs. The atmosphere was mostly one of cautious sobriety, verging upon stoic confusion. Much of the campaigning here over the past few weeks hasn’t been about who to vote for, but about how to vote, or even simply informing people that they can vote. Certainly the expressions of some Inwood residents seemed to betray a certain performance anxiety, a nervousness that after all the hype and speeches they might somehow get things wrong. More powerful than any of this, though, was the pervasive air of quiet determination evident in every polling station I visited. However old, however laden with children, however pressed for time, however lame or infirm, New Yorkers were going to vote today. After four long years, they seemed to say, ‘Now we get to answer back’.
Over the course of the day, as I travelled between the five different boroughs and saw the same pattern of signs, booths, interpreters and volunteers repeated with local variations; as poll-station clerks and cops broke into huge smiles as they confirmed again and again a ‘massive turnout’, I began to feel that today was a day when America began to reclaim some of her sorely missed keystone words – the words on which the whole experiment was founded and which have, in recent years, become so unfaithful on the tongue. Democracy, Patriotism, Independence and, yes, Change. This last word was not just in the air, but appeared to be physically enacted within those black-curtained voting booths. Those voters in Inwood, or Jackson Heights, or the Bronx, who entered looking so serious, so concerned, exited these booths with beaming smiles, so blatantly and instinctively overjoyed that at times it looked as if they should have been carrying new-born infants from a maternity room. Today, it seemed, the voting booth, so disappointing in the last two elections as an agent of change, really was a place of transformation.
After such high-tech campaigns the process of voting itself was surprisingly low-tech. No touch-screen machines in NYC. Just a series of helpful volunteers, thick pink books of registered names and the old-style switch and pull voting machines. What I hadn’t expected was that this meant that I wouldn’t so much see the city vote today as hear it. Standing among the rows of booths I watched as another person slipped inside, then listened as the red handle was pulled into the voting position, followed by a series of clicks as the switches beside the candidates’ names were flicked, followed by the final clunk of the handle being pulled back, casting that person’s vote. What was fascinating, though, wasn’t so much those clicks and clunks, but the pauses in between. Sometimes those switches were deftly flicked in quick succession, but more often they weren’t. In the ensuing moment of silence I felt as if I was listening to a city think, to a nation decide, as two years of campaigning waited upon that hovering finger. Wherever it fell, though, there was always that final, resounding clunk of the ballot cast. As one woman said to her partner (sometimes I saw whole families enter the booths together), ‘God, I love that clunk.’ ‘That clunk, girl,’ he replied as they left the booth, ‘is the clunk of change.’
As I returned on the ferry from Staten Island, where I’d watched votes cast in a school, I realized that the view before me contained some of the most influential symbols of this and the last two US presidential elections. There, in the skyline of skyscrapers, was the achingly present absence of the Twin Towers which, for so long after they fell, have continued to cast a shadow over the actions of the American administration and, apparently, the votes of American people. And there, too, was battered Wall Street, perhaps the most crucial, if unfortunate, spur towards the kind of change this country has been crying out for. But then my eye fell on a third iconic American symbol – the Statue of Liberty. As the ferry made its progress past her, I couldn’t help hoping that those pauses I’d heard in the polling stations across the city – and the pauses that no doubt happened in booths across the rest of the country – had been weighted towards choices that might still be able to rescue some of her lost potency; that tomorrow, those pauses and clicks will have been translated into the promise of a new administration that will honour, rather than use, what she stands for; and that the words inscribed below her feet will, like those other long-abused keystone words of America, be invested once again with their true currency.
Photograph by Keith Ivey