San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A Beautiful Election Day

Growing up in the United States, in Boston, the famed city-on-a-hill and birthplace of the American Revolution’s “shot heard ’round the world,” I’ve always considered myself pretty well-versed in the meaning of democracy.

I could recite the Founding Fathers who inked their names on the pages of the U.S. Constitution and, on every Election Day, I followed my parents to the polls to watch as they filled in their ballots. When my turn came, I, too, took time off from work to do my “constitutional duty.”

But democracy in the U.S. is nothing like I experienced in Costa Rica this past Sunday. I witnessed long lines of cars – each with a political party flag trailing out a window – streaming along Paseo Colón, their drivers honking their horns in rhythm. And I saw people dancing outside the polling places, smiling at everyone regardless of the colors they wore that day. These moments caused me to scratch my head and wonder what I had been missing.

I had a unique view of Sunday’s presidential election as a staff reporter for The Tico Times. Collectively, we visited upwards of 15 metropolitan voting stations, and we were there to greet the candidates as they arrived to cast their ballots.

My day began when polls opened at 6 a.m. in Escazú center, where I watched the parents of the soon-to-be president-elect cast their votes. My day didn’t end until the last word was uttered at Laura Chinchilla’s victory party.

Throughout the day, we reporters spoke to dozens of voters, each of whom was eager to share his or her thoughts about the candidates.

All of the voters were proud of the decisions they had made. From toothless lottery ticket vendors to bandit taxi drivers, it was evident the people felt that they were important on Election Day, that their opinion counted.

And some said the Election Day spirit was a fraction of what it had been in years past.

But what a contrast to the United States, where the loudest cry of support for a candidate is a muted bumper sticker on the back of a car and where people hold their breath as they walk by subdued clusters of Democrats and Republicans, hoping party reps won’t make a last-minute attempt to sway their vote.

In Costa Rica, it didn’t matter that one neighbor was wearing the green-and-white of the incumbent party, or the next waved a yellow-and-red flag of the leftist candidate or the person down the street had wrapped their car in the red-and-white of the Libertarian Movement Party. What mattered most to people was that they had the opportunity to help decide the future of Costa Rica, and this gave them every reason to celebrate.

At one point, I was standing outside a polling station in a working-class neighborhood just south of San José when a woman in her 70s twirled by me.

Slightly out of breath from dancing so much, she waved her arm over the scene of marching bands, stilt-walkers and campaign workers and said, “This is beautiful, isn’t it?”

I nodded and smiled. To which, she responded, “This is democracy.”

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