no flags, just feet

I have voted in nearly every election since I turned 18, missing only the last one because I was abroad. In fact, I grew up going to the poles with my parents, who dutifully canceled each other’s vote. My mother was a passionate republican and my father a rabid democratic.

Here’s the thing I remember – the flag. It was always inside the poling station and usually outside too. We Americans wave our flag purporting to be so patriotic, yet we vote in relatively small numbers. We barely crack the quorum line for president elections, with about a 55% turnout in recent years. And, mid term elections, well there we’ve never cracked a quorum.

Yesterday, after two days of voting (yup, they keep poles open on Sundays – a novel idea don’t you think), 57% of Italian voted for four referendums. That’s right nothing but referendums. No people. No offices. Just referendums.

So I went to the poles to see what was happening. Not a flag in sight. Not one. Hummm… did my American eyes deceive me? Are Italians not patriotic? Then last evening I watched the news (one of those habits I must cultivate to help me learn Italian).

Feet, feet and more feet. Italian went to the poles and voted, passing fours items with over 94% of the vote: Italy will remain nuclear free, water can remain public (two different referendums), and public officials are not immune from prosecution. To give this some context, in the last 16 years quorums were never reached and the first referendum (after the one to end the monarchy), which passed in 1974, was to allow divorce. Clearly Italians were motivated this time. Perhaps Berlusconi inspired the turnout. Best I refrain from comment and return to the poling places.

As with the U.S. most polling stations are in schools and they look a lot like American polling places. People work in teams to confirm the identity of the voter, who must show his or her ID and which is stamped each time they vote. There are cloth draped booths, and lots of serious silence. But, there were no flags blowing in the wind and no flags hanging from the gym wall. Nope, notta one! The only colorful things in the entire place were four ballot boxes with color-coded slots to match the color-coded referendum ballots. And guess what, they managed to hand-count all those votes (over 28 million) by the time the nightly news ran.

No flags. Not one to be seen at the poling stations or even on the nightly news (at least the station I watched). Writing this reminds me of a comment by a Spanish colleague, who teaches in Peru, and visited the U.S. last year. After a few days in the States she said to me, “Why are there flags everywhere? Do you all forget you are American?” Apparently Italians do not need flags to remember they are Italian.

All photographs copyright: Jean Grow

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