I vote on Election Day, damn it. I have friends in the election business who have told me it really would be easier on them if more people voted early. I always counter, what if you change your mind. What if, just before Election Day, your favorite candidate is exposed as a baby-eating zombie, or a crypto-Whig?
Plus, voting early sucks the holiday drama from Election Day. It’s like getting Christmas out of the way early. On December 13, say, so we save the 25th for—um—Facebook. What’s the point?
Adding something to the dramatic thrill is that election days are often busy days at the paper, especially when they’re on Tuesdays, when we work late anyway. Often I arrive at the polls with seconds to spare, as the ladies who take names will attest. I enjoy that frisson of angst: Will my reasonable and correct opinions matter? Or disappear into the void? A missed election is a foretaste of the days when I’m stricken from the polls. When I’m deceased. Or, in the alternative, incarcerated.
I walk to the polls, an old personal tradition that dates back to the days when I didn’t have a car that worked. Sometimes I run. It’s an athletic event, more exciting than most 5Ks. Voting often comes with a rush of adrenalin, and I admit it may affect my choices. When my heart rate is sailing past 90, I’ve found, I’m more idealistic, and more likely to believe this is all worth it.
People always fuss about lines, but the few times I’ve had to wait in line, it’s been a lot more interesting than waiting in line for something ordinary like a new restaurant or a freak show. There’s a tension there; in front of you and behind you are people you know, people you don’t, people you used to know but haven’t seen since the Nixon administration. You don’t know how they’re voting, and they don’t know how you’re voting, and right here you’re not supposed to talk about it. It’s like a giddy masquerade. Then we vote—secretly—and scram.
But last week, at lunchtime on a sunny day after a visit to the farmers’ market, the old courthouse tempted me. The tree-shaded old brick building that’s been there since electric lights were a high-tech novelty. I wish we had more opportunities to make good use of that old building, witness to so many dramas over the years. During the more sensational murder trials, citizens would stand in the grass outside the windows of the courthouse, always open in the summertime, hoping to hear scraps of scandal. Cormac McCarthy’s narrator in Suttree described the old clock tower as it looked in the dark 60 years ago.
So I go there when I can, and try to soak it in. I get my car tags there, get my driver’s license renewed there. Last week I was going to break my old traditions and vote early there.
I paused at the old marble marker in the anteroom, Stephenson & Getaz, Builders. The partner in charge was Swiss-born David Getaz, just 37 when he completed this project in 1886. It’s a small courthouse for what was then a rapidly growing county of almost 60,000. The folks in our Knox County liked to save money. This courthouse cost $82,000 to build. Translated for 125 years of inflation, that’s maybe $3 million in modern dollars. Not much, you’d think, for a permanent courthouse.
It would be useful history to figure out what taxpayers do with the money they save, over the years. Low-tax advocates could give us some idea of what long-term good accrues when we do save tax money. Communities with higher tax rates have modern public libraries and light rail and superior educational systems and marble temples of justice. All these years, conservative Tennesseans have been saving our money to spend it voluntarily on other stuff. But what?
Of course. The $48 million Vol training center. Dumb question.
But I’m fond of the humble old courthouse anyway, this building that’s graphically represented on rural road signs all over Knox County, and Mr. Getaz did a good job with the money the county allowed him. This building has lasted more than three times as long as any of the three courthouses that preceded it.
I approached the courthouse the only proper way, via the Dr. John Mason Boyd “Our Beloved Physician” marble porte-cochere. Dozens of political lawn signs in clashing colors added to the anticipation, as they do at every polling place, clustered like gaudy flowers in the ancient lawn. Beneath them, the bones of our first governor lie in unaccustomed peace.
It’s been only recently that the old courthouse has posted a security guard at the front door, like the City County Building. “Empty your pockets,” the guard chanted, “and if you’ve got a belt, take it off.” I wondered how the first generation of gentlemen who came through these doors—Charles McClung McGhee, Oliver Perry Temple, Perez Dickinson, and Dr. John Mason Boyd himself, plus all those Civil War veterans—would have responded to this instruction. Sometimes their belts had guns on them.
Mayor Sam Heiskell, one of our most learned mayors, author of still-cited scholarly biographies of Jackson, and a progressive who opposed prohibition and favored decriminalization of prostitution, carried a pistol, and once got angry and fired it at someone in this courthouse, over a matter long forgotten. He missed, fortunately for us. He was generally a good mayor.
Thus partially disrobed, I made it past the gantlet, and into the old building. Only when I descended into the basement did I see the notices that, despite all the colorful political plumage in the yard, they don’t have the polls in the old courthouse anymore. It’s next door, in the hollow, concrete City County Building, past another security guard, another metal detector. The old bait-and-switch. My quest dissolved into anticlimax.
So we can no longer early-vote in the old courthouse. It’s my newest reason for honoring the Day.