Don’t be a quiet voter: Why you should make small talk while you wait to vote
Co-authored by Elena Matsui and insights from Rob Healy
Voting on Election Day used to be about conversation. While it’s now just a footnote in our history books, early voting in the United States involved voters — all white men at the time — publicly casting their vote out loud in the local courthouse. They’d argue the merits or demerits of candidates and issues often fueled by plenty of liquor. George Washington famously spent his entire campaign fund in 1758 on 160 gallons of liquor to help sway voters on election day. Indeed, elections in Colonial America were rowdy occasions with voters from both sides often adjourning to the local tavern where the winning candidate paid to keep the booze flowing.
While there are plenty of reasons not to return to the system of voting in Colonial America, today can still be an opportunity to engage in dialogue — and to celebrate. As you stand on what might be a very long line to vote at your polling station, consider striking up a conversation with people next to you. Perhaps steer clear of politics (that’s illegal in many states), but just about anything else is fair game. Ask how long they’ve lived in the neighborhood, where they grew up, or what their favorite restaurant is in town. Oh, and start by introducing yourself. Chances are you’ll not only pass the time, but find yourself moved by the experience. Record numbers of citizens are showing up at the polls this year, many of them first time voters, new citizens, and entire families all excited to make their voice heard. Science also suggests that small talk is a powerful psychological prophylactic against uncertainty and paranoia, which many of us are experiencing at heightened levels this election cycle. It also has a positive impact on well being and community cohesion, and activates the areas of our brain responsible for cognitive empathy.
The person you chat with may or may not share your political views. Either way, it’s an opportunity to build community and have a personal interaction not tinged by blue or red, which feels particularly important at this moment. We’ll likely need to find ways to do this after the results are tallied, no matter who ends up in the White House. We might as well start now. The fact that you and your neighbor on the voting line are both exercising your right to vote can be a powerful and energizing connector even if you end up filling out different bubbles on your ballots. And who knows, sharing your story could inform and even shift someone’s thinking. As we know from the successful gay rights Freedom to Marry campaign in 2015, short — even just 10 minute — conversations can reduce prejudice, change people’s minds, and ultimately lead to policy change.
We may not be reveling in a booze fueled election day parade, or even gathering with friends to watch the results this year. But there’s still opportunity and reason to make today about conversation and celebration.