(Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
This time tomorrow, Virginia voters will be busy electing a new General Assembly in another of the elections we hold every November. Here, we never take a year off.
This evening, before the polls open, take a stroll if you can through your neighborhood. Maybe even drive around your community — roll the window down, weather permitting. Look around. Listen. Feel. Breathe in the cool fall air.
Election eve long ago became perhaps my most special night on each year’s calendar. It was because of the resolute, almost reverential calm that pervaded the darkened streets and neighborhoods.
For the overwhelming balance of my adult life, elections were my business. I lived them as a newsman and political correspondent.
Before the weekends preceding each election, I had studied published polls and campaign finance data and traveled extensively across Virginia. I had made countless phone calls to local party leaders, candidates, campaign professionals, registrars and “real people” I had met in my reporting. Rarely did any election night result surprise me.
Reporters and editors spent Mondays before elections polishing the background and contextual material at the bottom of stories that would be transmitted the next day to publications and broadcasters across Virginia and beyond. That material would remain unchanged but the tops of the stories were revised many times Tuesday night into Wednesday’s wee hours with fresh tallies and trends until, eventually, The Associated Press declared a winner and announced it with a bulletin, the next-highest priority level for wire-service reports behind a flash.
Such was the caffeine- and adrenaline-fueled work within the pressure cooker that was election night in AP’s state control bureaus as vote totals flooded in.
But the night before, when I would invariably leave work late, I’d often take the long way home, sometimes varying my route through different parts of town.
The streets were conspicuously empty and quiet except maybe for falling leaves rustling in the breeze. Bars and eateries, where autumn Monday nights normally meant lively pro football crowds, seemed sparse and subdued. Some households had displayed their support for certain candidates with yard signs that, by then, had largely exhausted any expectation of influencing the undecided.
After all the biting rhetoric and the acidic ads, after all the claims and counterclaims and liberties taken with the truth, after all the debates and breathless campaign reporting, after all the final rallies had ended, now the voters would have their say – the only say that matters.
The anticipation felt palpable: the people’s pent-up will was about to be made manifest in the seminal triumph of representative democracy. It seemed an almost sacred moment, and it always inspired me. It probably will tonight, too.
This evening, let yourself believe in our collective wisdom; that we as voters get it right more often than not. Even if the candidate (or candidates) of your choice fall short, trust that it’s better than unaccountable and unelected power imposing its will upon us.
Trust that your votes are being fairly and faithfully collected and counted by honorable people just like you who are doing their best, because they are.
Another edifying aspect of my years of daily political reporting was Election Day visits to urban, rural and suburban polling places where I met citizens who gave earnestly of their time and worked long, tiring hours at local precincts to ensure that their neighbors’ votes mattered. The same goes for dutiful, skilled career election professionals, regardless of the party in power, who kept the processes clean and transparent.
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Government of, by and for the people took root here 247 years ago. Over that time, suffrage was justly expanded to populations once disenfranchised — women and the descendants of enslaved people chief among them. There is still work yet to do. However, there is no guarantee that our constitutional democracy will make it to 250 years, as malignant forces hell-bent on authoritarian rule seek power by any means, up to and including seditious violence.
One generation cannot bequeath the blessings of freedom to the next. It must be earned and defended anew through informed vigilance, intentional electoral participation and the courage to stand against those who prosper from dividing Americans and turning one against the other.
So tonight, take it all in. Savor the quiet resolve of Americans — Virginians, your neighbors — about to choose their government in our fragile annual exercise of the peaceful delegation of power.
Tomorrow, cast your vote and then watch the machinery of democracy and the rule of law run their righteous course.
Remember and cherish it. We risk its loss sooner than we dare imagine.
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