On Election Day, I had the privilege of working the polls in Montgomery, NY. Although understaffed, we managed to process nearly 1,200 votes at that one polling station. My job was to help with the voting machines where voters fed their paper ballots for scanning and storage after making their selections. The voters were, almost to a person, polite and even enthusiastic, particularly when I would reward them with a sticker at the end of the process. The voting sticker occupies its own space in the American imagination as a emblem of honor and duty. After all, without the sticker, only an unceremonious thump and beep from the machine followed by an uptick in its digital counter would mark the august occasion of performing one's civic duty. American stickers may not be quite as satisfying as Australia's "democracy sausages," but they still offer a little thrill for almost everyone. In fact, only a handful of voters that day declined the decal. A few, apparently wary of the added drag of a piece of paper on their clothing, declared that they were "in a hurry." An even smaller number took the sticker and pasted it on before surlily announcing, "I already know I voted." I guess they figured the tag was meant as a reminder not to get back in line, like some sort of mnemonic "election ink." Of the hundreds of voters I processed, though, maybe twenty total declined this humble American electoral tradition, the sticker, and only a very few others were not grateful and gracious.
Just one gentleman stood on his own, though, by taking umbrage at the content of the sticker itself. At first, he accepted the badge as usual and turned to leave, but then he stopped and spun back with an intense look on his face. The sticker, I should point out, had two messages, or, more precisely, the same message in two languages. Across the top of the little oval with the American flag, it said, "I Voted." Across the bottom, it read "Yo Voté." This particular voter incredulously pronounced the bottom line to me as if it were English slang, "'Yo vote?' What is that?" I chose to take him at face value and replied as literally as possible, "it's Spanish."
I need to point out that it is not for the poll workers to engage voters in contentious discussions, so I hoped that my bland statement of the obvious would end the conversation. Instead, he blurted, "What? Spanish?" Struggling to decide if he was being sarcastic or was really confused, I called upon my three years of high school Spanish from back in the 1900s and pronounced it for him, "Yoe voe-tay," and repeated, "It's Spanish."
Instead of just moving on content with my approximation of the pronunciation, he chose to treat me to a spontaneous lecture on how "they" need to learn "our language" if "they" are going to live in "our country." I said nothing at all and looked hopefully toward the next voter in line, which somehow further encouraged my haranguer. "My grandparents had to learn English when they got here," he insisted, "so these people should learn our language." I remained steadfastly silent, which required a tremendous effort, as he started to reiterate the main points of his broadside. He clearly had nothing to add to his argument except an increasingly shrill intonation. Things were getting touchy for no reason I could ascertain, and I needed to defuse the situation and move him along so that others could freely exercise the franchise just as he did.
What is it about languages that we find simultaneously comforting and off-putting? Is it that language is so fundamental to communication, and communication is so fundamental to our interactions in and within society? Or, is it that language is a quick way of forming community and serves as an easy identifier as to whether one is in or out of the fold? Perhaps this voter was annoyed because he was not part of the Spanish-speaking set, or maybe he was irked that Spanish-speakers were not sufficiently part of his set as demonstrated by their persistent use of Spanish. Even so, it seemed a stunted hill to die on, the cause that only English should appear on a voting sticker. Given that my county has a large Spanish-speaking population, the dual-language approach seems a reasonable attempt to be inclusive.
To be fair, I have heard the argument that if we were to be truly inclusive, we would feature the languages of several immigrant groups on our fraught little "I Voted" stickers. I get the logic, which is tantamount to saying that unless we represent all the worthy people who move to our shores, we should represent almost none. In other words, since we cannot be maximally inclusive, we must be utterly exclusive. Remarkably, this argument has the distinction of being both a superb example of a slippery slope fallacy as well as a pristine instance of sacrificing the good on the altar of the perfect.
While English is by far its most common language, the U.S. has no official language, with Spanish as the second-most common tongue. This linguistic split also holds true in my county, where the largest city is more than fifty-percent Latinx. Therefore, printing "Yo Voté" along with "I Voted" on the sticker makes sense and does no harm. It serves as an invitation to our Spanish-speaking population to participate in the most fundamentally democratic right and rite-of-passage our republic has to offer. As for the claim, à la my recalcitrant voter, that "my grandparents had to learn English," while perhaps true, it is complicated by the reality of the varied communities that have immigrated here throughout history. Many such communities retained and replicated the customs, traditions, cuisine, practices, and, yes, languages of their home countries, thus enhancing the richness of today's culture. We can see vestiges of this phenomenon all over. Visit a "Germantown" of 100 years ago and you might observe business signs in German, hear the language spoken on the street exclusively, and read official documents and even street names all in German. In fact, just south of where I live, at least one town is home to a large ultra-orthodox Jewish community, where one can see an example of a cultural enclave. Or, visit Chinatown today in many major cities for a taste of what I am describing. Nonetheless, even if they did not receive that community help, I am sure my recalcitrant voter's grandparents would have welcomed a generous period during which they were able to speak their own language while they learned English, which is notoriously tricky to master, as I hope to one day.
On Election Day I could have said all this and much, much more, but I needed to move my vocal voter along. He was looking agitated, and his voice was angry even though I had tried to appear both as disinterested and as uninterested as possible. I guess he wanted me to agree with him, which itself could have been an inducement to keep on spouting. In the end, I could only go with the truth of the matter. With a look of profound incomprehension in my eyes and as much exasperation as I could muster, I shook my head and replied, "It's just a sticker, sir." He left then. Maybe my pleading tone embarrassed him a bit, but I doubt it. As he strode out the door, having surprisingly donned the dual-language decal, I processed the next voter, who welcomed her sticker with a gracious giggle.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.