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BEHIND THE CURTAIN
November 2, 2004
 
Sometimes I would go with my father. He would disappear into the telephone booth-looking contraption and a grey curtain would click shut behind him, leaving only his trousered legs in view. After a few moments the curtain would click and -- swoosh!-- open again and he would emerge, and he would chat a bit with the poll watchers and then we would walk home.

Sometimes I went with my mother and grandmother, later in the day. The same booth -- there were only 250 souls in our little town, and one machine more than sufficed. They took turns: the same grey curtain cutting her off from my sight except for my mother's slim ankles. The same click and swoosh! Out she came. Then my grandmother went in the booth, disappearing except for her black lace-up shoes. Old lady shoes.

Why do you have to hide? I asked once as we walked home.

Because your vote is a secret, my mother answered.

But why is it a secret?

It just is, she said. Your vote is always a secret. Only you ever have to know who you voted for.

This appealed to me. I was the youngest person in a family of seven, including the two grandmothers. Suppertime was always full of conversation, but I was little and didn't have much to offer yet. I listened carefully to everything that was said, and asked a question now and then. But I knew that there were things I didn't understand, and was embarrassed to reveal my ignorance. So mostly I just listened and remembered what I heard.

But your vote is secret. Nobody need ever know about it. You need never speak of it, need not defend or explain it to anyone if you don't choose to. It doesn't matter, behind the grey curtain, if you're the littlest in your family. Or poor. Or rich. They can't tell by looking at your vote. Your vote is the same as anyone else's, no matter who you are.

Does the President vote? I asked my father.

Yes, he said.

Does he vote for himself? I was just learning about modesty as a becoming virtue, that you're not supposed to blow your own horn, and voting for oneself seemed a little uppity.

Yes. Certainly he thinks he's the best man for the job, so he must vote for himself. My father didn't seem to regard this as uppity at all. I filed this fact away for further thought. Modesty was a more complicated virtue than I had suspected.

The legs of grownups showing beneath the grey curtain. Old men and ladies watching the polls, carefully managing the signing of names, the handing of ballots, gravely granting entry into the sacred booth where each citizen was alone with the sacred secret of his equality.

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Listen to today's eMo read by Buddy Stallings, Episcopal priest and transplanted Mississippian, who votes today in Staten Island, New York.
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