On a warm weekend afternoon at an outdoor café, my friend Randi divided up her stack of stamped postcards and passed half to me across the table. We chatted and caught up on each other’s lives as we wrote the identical message over and over to strangers in South Carolina: “We do our best for our families no matter our color, age, or gender, but some politicians divide us to block access to affordable health care, good schools, and clean water. Let’s join together and vote in the November 3 election.” I signed my first name on my stack, and Randi signed hers, under the narrative provided to us by the two sponsoring organizations, Indivisible and Postcards2SwingStates. The only variations were the salutations—Ashton, Tiffany, Cindy, Marco, others—and the individual addresses copied from a list of Democratic voters.
I had brought along my own ballot in the car to deliver afterward. After I parked outside the café, I hesitated about leaving my ballot unattended on the car seat with a momentary concern about it being taken. I realized that having participated in elections for decades, I have never been more attached to my ballot. When Randi and I finished up, she graciously offered to mail my postcards along with hers. I had become attached to these potential votes as well, and kept the cards to mail myself.
I headed to turn in my ballot at the county Civic Center that houses the local courts and other government offices. I followed the signs in the large complex pointing to the location of the ballot drop-off. Alone in the empty parking lot, I walked up to the official box and stopped before pulling the handle. I reflected on what I was holding, more than a piece of paper and a sealed envelope. It held the weight of all the people across the world who have risked their lives, and sometimes lost them, for the right to cast their vote.
In my own country, it was only 100 years ago that women who were white first obtained the right to vote. I thought about how the Voting Rights Act protected the ballots of Black Americans only in 1965. Indigenous Americans’ voting rights were secured by the last holdout state only in 1962, and they still face legal obstacles. In my own lifetime. Now those in power are trying to take the ability to vote away.
It wasn’t until after I dropped my ballot into the chute that I noticed the cardboard sign across the paved walkway, adjacent to the building’s big glass doors. Curious, I walked over to look. It was a makeshift memorial for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Two battery operated candles had been placed on either side. A jar had previously served as an improvised vase with water, its bottom containing brightly colored marbles. With this public entrance long closed due to the pandemic, the jar was completely dry and held the desiccated remains of what had been flowers.
Teary-eyed, the action I needed to take became clear. I drove the 16 miles home to fill up a water bottle, bought a colorful bouquet, and returned to the Civic Center just before dusk. My license plate was no doubt appearing on a security camera, with someone watching me pouring the water into the jar and placing the fresh flowers. I removed the disintegrating remnants of the previous offering and placed them at the base of some ornamental shrubs nearby, to decompose and replenish the soil.
Amidst the behind-the-scenes maneuvering to undermine democracy, patriotism isn’t hateful bluster while waving a flag. Patriotism is thousands of people across the country writing more than 15 million postcards to voters they’ll never meet. It’s the anonymous individual who showed up with cardboard, candles, and a jar, and made a lifelong promise to a heroic American to stand up for justice for all.