In a Small Ohio City, an Almost Sacred Day of Civic Purpose from the New York Times

In Elyria , Ohio , 144 crosses were recently installed on the front lawn of the Elyria Catholic High School . The electronic sign, in addition to advertising bingo and jackpot night, featured a scrolling message that said: “144 babies die per hour in the U.S.A. Pray for the end of abortion.”

At Donna's Diner in downtown Elyria , Ohio , the regulars known as the Breakfast Club gathered on Election Day.

For Donna Dove, the owner of the diner, Tuesday morning was business as usual.

As the polls opened at 6:30 a.m. in Elyria , Howard Foxman voted with his wife, Ketty, at the Cross Community Church .

Elyria at dusk on the eve of the election. Residents and elected officials are hopeful for an economic revival for the downtown area.

Mayor Holly Brinda in her office at City Hall.

Taking a break after the lunchtime rush, Donna, far left, cast her ballot at the West Park Recreation Center .

November 6, 2012

In a Small Ohio City, an Almost Sacred Day of Civic Purpose

ELYRIA, Ohio

An hour before another Election Day’s dawn in Elyria, several dozen voters were already waiting for the polls to open at a church transformed into a secular space of civic duty. Deep in the snaking line were Howard and Ketty Foxman, their compatibility reflected by matching gray ponytails.

Howard, 91, had a lot on his mind. In surrender to age and the Internet, he recently closed his store, Loomis Camera, whose oversize mock camera above the door has virtually recorded life in this small Ohio city since forever. But he gave the sign to a museum in Cincinnati a couple of weeks ago and has been slowly, sadly, clearing out the shop he has occupied for the last 62 years

Even so, with all these worries — including the knowledge that his father died shortly after retiring — Howard was determined to vote. With his wife carrying a water bottle and crackers in case his blood sugar dropped, he moved forward, the tip of his silver cane dotting the maroon carpet, inch by inch.

Such a heartwarming scene of American pride. But when asked whether he thinks his vote counts, he reared up, as if to thrash the person who would ask such a stupid question. “Of course!” Howard barked. “And anyone who doesn’t vote is an — ”

Let’s just say that Howard strongly, strongly believes in exercising one’s right to vote. Let’s also just say that many in Elyria, in this swing state of swing states, feel the same way — from the World War II veterans who meet daily for breakfast down at Donna’s Diner to the young and pregnant waitress who pours their coffee.

The jaded might contend that in a presidential election, one vote among tens of millions has no meaning, that casting a ballot is like casting a pebble into the sea. But here in Elyria, about 30 miles southwest of Cleveland, residents did not need the unending bombardment of robocalls and door-to-door political salespeople to know that their vote mattered.

Voting is simply what you do.

Even if you are 91, you get up at 4:30 in the morning and eat something to keep your diabetes in check. You get into your Chevrolet sedan, in which a blue handicap-access sign dangles from the rearview mirror. Then you drive two miles to the crowded parking lot of the Cross Community Church.

You walk with some difficulty past the front door, past the reprint of the American flag taped beside the crosses etched in the glass. You sign in at one of the foldout tables that the Lorain County Board of Elections has set up along a glass partition with a close-up view of the church’s pews. Then you wait with legs aching for one of the dozen voting booths to open up.

“I never go to church,” Howard said. “Except to vote.”

This collapse of the church-and-state divide is one of the rituals that distinguish Election Day in Elyria. Like other special days, of course, it has its own incessant music, in those political ads on the radio, and its own special decorations, in those lawn signs that enhance the November foliage: the red-white-and-blue of Sherrod Brown for the United States Senate; the blue-and-white of Ted Kalo for county commissioner; the blue-and-orange for Frank Janik for judge.

(Some of these signs all but dare you to prove with your vote that granite does not reside in your chest. “Education First — For Elyria’s schools,” one sign reads, while another says, “Vote FOR Mental Health.”)

But unlike other special days, be it Memorial Day, Labor Day or the Fourth of July, Election Day has consequence. “This is the most important day of all the days,” Howard said, his voice rising once again toward some punctuating expletive.

According to Paul Adams, the director of the local Board of Elections, thousands here agreed. Voter turnout was especially robust, he said, and voter concentration on the many ballot measures — including six charter amendments in Elyria — was intense enough to require the assistance of extra staff.

After voting, Howard returned home for a little rest. Then, for one of the last times, he headed to the space formerly known as Loomis Camera, to oversee the packing of things he began accumulating during the Truman era: old cameras, coins, stamps, the once-risqué gag gifts that he kept in a back room.

Meanwhile, a few dozen yards away, in Donna’s Diner, the morning regulars assembled. Here was Donna Dove, 57, the owner, who lives to cook but who struggles every month to pay her bills. Here was her waitress and granddaughter, Bridgette Harvan, 21, an unmarried college student who is six months pregnant.

And here were the workers and retirees who belong to the informal group called the Breakfast Club, including two longtime but adversarial friends: Jim Dall, 89 and Democrat, and Speedy Amos, 86 and Republican. Speedy, a Marine veteran of World War II and the Korean War, wore a button that said “I Like Ike.” Jim, a Navy veteran of World War II, wore a look of dismay.

Among those at Donna’s, there might be the realization, or resignation, that the daily struggle for some in this city of 55,000 will continue no matter who is president. Poverty is rising, the downtown requires economic resuscitation, and the region has yet to fill the void left by all the many manufacturing businesses, now gone, that once provided prosperity.

Still, to a person, they all had already voted, or were about to.

Between serving Jim’s usual breakfast of eggs over easy, rye toast, and refilling Speedy’s mug, Bridgette said that she was voting — for the first time — as soon as her shift ended. “I don’t want to be mad at the results and know that I hadn’t done anything,” she explained.

Across the span of several generations, she found agreement from Jim, who turns 90 in a couple of weeks. He vividly recalled casting his own first vote, for Roosevelt.

“Teddy?” asked Speedy.

But Jim said he was serious, and went on to equate the right to vote to something sacred. “I think it’s good for the soul,” he said.

The breakfast crowd moved on, some of them to vote. Ike Maxwell, 59, a former football superstar for Elyria High School who has not been the same since a baseball-bat attack three decades ago, walked in and walked out. Then came the lunch crowd, some of them sampling items from the macaroni-and-cheese bar that Donna recently installed to reinvigorate her business.

Finally, when things quieted down, Donna slipped on her blue Donna’s Diner windbreaker and slipped out the back door. She drove to a city recreation center, where voting booths were lined up along a basketball court’s glassy parquet floor. After showing her identification, she stepped up to a booth and cast her ballot.

But how she voted, Donna said, is her business.

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Created 7 November 2012