Comment: The slow count of ballots was democracy’s heartbeat

The wait was agonizing, but the careful count and its dispersal of power are key to our system of government.

By Wendy Brown / Special To The Washington Post

Everyone was eager for the ballot counting to be finished and for the 2020 election, along with much else the year brought, to be behind us.

Most found the utterly preoccupying wait to be agonizing, anxiety-producing and maddening all at once. They were indignant that some vote counters in Georgia went home to sleep Thursday night and that Pennsylvania still had 100,000-some ballots to record at the time. They are amazed that some states allow mail ballots to arrive as late as Nov. 12, more than a week after Election Day, and that improperly signed or submitted ballots can still be “cured.” Why couldn’t the obvious just be declared?

And yet, even as I celebrated the outcome and joined the dancing in the streets, I was a bit sorry when the waiting, and the process that required it, came to an end. There was something strangely beautiful — a democratic aesthetic, perhaps — in the footage of the slow, meticulous counting of ballots that every news network returned to incessantly. The process captured something of the “slow time” of democracy, its pace contrasting sharply with President Trump’s autocratic declaration of victory on election night.

There is, of course, a place in democracy for speed, too, for impatience about desperately needed change, for quick action in crisis, for timely responsiveness to danger, hurt, cruelty and violence. Still, there was something moving in the fact that we had to wait so long for all those votes to be counted and perhaps recounted, and that the counting had to be done by real people in real places, not virtually or by obscure technologies that elude our understanding. The concreteness and slowness of the process underscored the universal franchise as one of democracy’s most fundamental features, and suggested that ours, badly battered, is not dead yet. Biden referred to democracy as “messy” in this regard, but it may be more aptly characterized as dependent on both slowness and dispersed power.

Indeed, for Alexis de Tocqueville, the “dispersion of power” was essential to democracy in the era of the modern nation state, where the greater tendency is always for power to be concentrated, institutionalized and centralized. Tocqueville’s recognition makes what could have been tedious curiously riveting, namely those detailed maps of all the states where ballots were still being counted. Look! This part of Georgia is solidly red except for that one little county that went for Biden; wonder who those people are? And there! That Pittsburgh exurb that flipped for Trump last time has flipped back; wonder if it was white women changing their minds or Black voters who came out en masse? Wow, Nevada’s Carson City is almost 70 percent for Trump but the Reno metropolitan area just to the north is solidly blue. What’s up with that? This is dispersed power in an America most of us barely know, and need to know better.

That a whole nation, indeed a whole world, also watched this process recalls something else fundamental about democracy: the way it draws us together in common in both senses of the word. However briefly, we gathered in common for days that felt like years to discover what the common people want; soon enough the political operators, technocrats and plutocrats will return their hands to the wheels of power. Watching the counting process on TV, even when it was merely as a reporter’s backdrop, all the big players and powers were briefly dimmed. Indeed, Trump’s braying about fraud is literally refuted by footage that let us look through glass at ordinary Georgians and Arizonans processing ordinary ballots cast by ordinary people, in slow time.

Of course, this appreciation of the slow and dispersed qualities of the electoral process is easier to enjoy now that a Joe Biden win is assured. It also brackets all the ways that American democracy was severely compromised from the beginning, throughout its history and into the present. It ignores all the damage — the gerrymandering, voter suppression, corruption and media manipulation — that this already compromised democracy has suffered over the past 40 years, not to mention the past four. It ignores the persistent scandal of the deeply anti-democratic Electoral College. It ignores the ways that democracy mixed with capitalism and structural racism will always fall short of rule by the people. It ignores the nightmare of Trumpism, and the support he gained, not merely maintained in this election.

But still. This week of waiting told us that democracy, even on life support, has a heartbeat. Perhaps the experience can embolden our efforts to build it anew for the 21st century, even as power re-concentrates and time speeds up and becomes undemocratic again.

Wendy Brown holds the Class of 1936 First Chair at the University of California at Berkeley and is the author of “In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Anti-Democratic Politics in the West.”

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