Local Commentary

A Penny for Your Thoughts: News of Greater Falls Church

Absentee in-person voting continues robustly at the satellite polling locations in Fairfax County. At the Mason District Governmental Center, lines are uniformly long as voters queue up as far as a block and a half away from the entrance. Most voters report that the wait is two to three hours, and most people are very patient. If you requested a ballot by mail, and have completed it but do not wish to return it by mail, you can utilize the ballot drop box located in the lobby. You do not have to wait in line to use the ballot drop box. Masks or face coverings are required when you come in to vote or drop your ballot.

Unfortunately, some folks apparently think the rules do not apply to them. On Saturday, I heard from constituents who praised the set-up, the volunteers, and the election officials who made the wait a “safe, welcoming and secure experience.” That ended when the voters attempted to get back to their vehicle in the parking lot. The Republican information table was placed right at the walkway, negating a six-foot separation between people, and the volunteers there had removed or completely lowered their masks. When asked to please use their masks, one of the female volunteers refused, saying “my body, my choice.” (Does she also support reproductive choice?) When another voter noted that “I am wearing my mask to protect you,” the male volunteer called him a Nazi! When one of the voters quietly indicated she was going to report their behavior to the (non-partisan) election officials inside the polling place, the “choice” woman said “I don’t care what those damn Biden supporters do.”

This is democracy? Voters exercising their precious right and responsibility to vote are called Nazis? Health precautions like wearing masks are ridiculed? No wonder democracy seems to be endangered. In a recent book, “How Democracies Die,” authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt note that the “rules of the game” — those unwritten norms of behavior that are not written into the U.S. Constitution but are universally understood — are under attack. Toleration — where rivals can agree to disagree, sometimes vociferously but not to the death, as well as forbearance — using power sparingly instead of as a bludgeon have long provided the necessary guardrails for democracy to thrive. When those norms lose their underpinnings, the structure collapses, taking with it our treasured democratic ideals and spirit. Naysayers might object to that characterization, that they simply are exercising their constitutional rights but “our democratic system, and our country, require respect for our Constitution, and the laws and norms of political and civic behavior,” as Federal District Judge William E. Smith wrote in an opinion last week (U.S District Court for the District of Rhode Island, C.A. No. 18-645 WES).

The issue was a class action suit brought in Rhode Island by students arguing for an adequate civics education. Judge Smith dismissed the suit, denying the relief sought, but commended the plaintiffs for bringing the case forward, and he called out the need to “…educate our children on civics, the rule of law, and what it really means to be an American, and what America means. Or, we may ignore these things at our and their peril.” Public education has been lauded as the “great equalizer” for rich and poor alike, and the public school movement, which dates to the mid-19th century, helped level the field and provide an awareness of civic and moral responsibilities worthy of all citizens. In his 2019 Federal Judiciary report, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that “We have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside.”

One suspects that the volunteers at the Republican information table got a civics education in school, but they left their lessons in the classroom rather than practicing them in today’s toxic political atmosphere. Judge Smith expressed his concern: “We are a society that is polarized as much as any time in our history.” He went on to say that “…survival of our democracy will not happen just because we want it to; we will have to work for it,” and that will be a struggle against old known, and some new, forces. Establishing our democracy was a bold and chancy step for the Founding Fathers and Mothers. Maintaining our democracy cost blood and treasure across many decades. Improving and preserving our democratic values and ideals will mean hard work for all of us — respecting ideas, as well as differences, working to find common ground, resolving significant social and economic issues, and moving our nation forward. Democracy is worth it, and it starts with our votes.

Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at mason@fairfaxcounty.gov.