05/29/2013 11:32 am ET Updated Jul 29, 2013

Sacred Rites of Spring: Voting

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For two days (Sunday and Monday, March 26-27, 2013), the citizens of the city of Rome were called upon to vote. These elections did not have quite the national scale, nor the scope and international relevance, that the February elections possessed -- elections that witnessed the astonishing return (again!) of Silvio Berlusconi to the national stage, as well as the remarkable electoral success of a television comedian-turned-politician who accumulated enough votes to make forming a parliamentary coalition considerably more difficult. Think of that one as the Tea Party, with a sense of humor.

No, these elections were more local, designed to select the next mayor of Rome, as well as several other municipal officials. Other major cities in Italy were doing the same thing at the same time. I was discussing these elections with a good friend of mine, and was surprised to find our conversation revolving primarily, not around the issues at stake in this election cycle, but rather around the way in which Romans cast their votes.

He, as it turned out, worked as the secretary to one precinct (called a seggio) in which local inhabitants came to cast their ballots. It is a grueling job; the money is not good, but it is still a job, and most of the people working there are in their 20's and 30's.

The team of five of which my friend was a part worked half the day on Saturday, setting up their room in a local school and organizing the massive amount of paperwork designed to provide extensive oversight and administrative control to the proceedings. They worked all day on Sunday, from the time the polls opened at 8 a.m. until they closed at 10 p.m., and then again on Monday, when the polls opened at 7 a.m. and closed at 3 p.m. After the polls closed, the team of five were responsible for the collective review of each ballot in order to determine whether the vote was clear, or ambiguous, or invalid. They would then collate and register their results, in triplicate, cross-reference the names and numbers of each citizen who voted in their precinct, and provide a demographic summary of how many men and how many women voted in their precinct, overall.

After completing that task, they were to be whisked away, either by taxi or state vehicle, to deliver each of the perhaps seven different kinds of documentation concerning voter turnout and the oversight they provided, plus the precious ballots themselves--all in separate stamped-and-sealed envelopes -- to the main warehouse near the Marconi district of Rome. Here the centralized tallies were to be computed, all night if necessary, and results began to be reported on Tuesday.

My friend's and his colleagues' primary duty was thus to provide an initial tally and demographic summary from their precinct... or, in this charming case, their two precincts. As it turns out, the majority of citizens in their assigned precinct are retired nuns, most of whom live in a church-sponsored retirement home. Many of them are elderly and infirm and cannot travel to the school, close though it is. And so on Saturday afternoon, two members of the team from this precinct were escorted with stamped ballots and an entirely separate set of credentialing booklets to the retirement home in order to enable some 25 nuns to cast their votes. These votes would be tallied separately; technically speaking, they constituted a virtual and independent precinct all its own.

So sacred is this secular state's obligation perceived to be: to provide its citizens, even those in religious orders, with the right to exercise their electoral voices.

My friend and I enjoyed the mutual surprise that came with learning about one another's utterly distinctive systems of voting. He was shocked to learn that my voting precinct in Atlanta is housed in a church building rather than a school. I was surprised to learn that the mayoral ballot, blue in color, was more than three feet long and boasted more than twenty separate political parties (the municipal ballot, pink in color, was half as long).

But we were both equally impressed by how much paperwork -- and how much redundancy -- was involved in the Italian system. It brought to mind those not-so-long-ago images of Florida electoral workers scanning "hanging chads" on punch-card ballots in large neon-lit rooms in the 2000 aftermath of "Bush vs. Gore."

All of this paper is designed to make such oversight possible by the relevant accountability structures, should that ever become necessary in a close or contested vote. It doesn't matter that it was unlikely to be needed in this case; the fact that it ever could be necessary is the point.

And it is a sacred point, having something to do with the sacrality of the printed page, a sacrality lost on those of us who vote in the newly paperless world of contemporary electoral America, the America that emerged after "Bush vs. Gore."

Our system seemed suddenly very strange indeed, in comparison to the experience of my Italian friend and his unique perspective on this current Roman electoral cycle. Oversight and accountability are the rule here. It occurred to me that our votes are now as virtual and as difficult to see as so much else in the eerily unaccountable world the computer has made possible.

It felt strange to say that I am issued an electronic card, then touch a screen, then confirm my choices, then submit them... to whom I do not know. All I see is my screen go blank, after which I deposit my card with some church volunteers who place it on an open stack and hand me an "I Voted" sticker. Did I really?, I now wonder. I do not know where the electronic cards or the machines go when they are done for the day. I do know that these church volunteers do not visit the shut-in to enable them to make their electronic voices heard.

And I began to feel that some sense of the sacred seems to have gone missing in this, our new system of voting -- in startling contrast to my friend's. It is the sacred value of the individual, not mesmerized by the technology of the machine, and the sacred role of the state in assuring that these sacred individual voices can be heard.