The Religious Backdrop of the Vote

This past week people across the United States participated in the public ritual of voting. These days, though, it is becoming less of a public act at the polling place and more of a private affair with the advent of absentee ballots. In the city in which I live most people choose to cast their votes by absentee ballot mostly out of convenience. This year for the first time I used an absentee ballot because I was actually absent from my home on the first Tuesday in November. So, instead of actually voting I spent some time thinking about how we came to call what we do the “vote”. For instance, why don’t we call it “electing” or making a “choice”, words more obviously descriptive of the act. Most likely it is because this act is so named in the Constitution. But where did the framers of the Constitution come up with the word?

The Latin root of our word ‘vote’ is votum, meaning a vow, or a solemn promise or wish to a god. Vote came into the English language sometime in the mid-sixteenth century from French where its meaning related to religious vows, and so we derive the forms votive, votary, devote. Shakespeare does not use the word ‘vote’, preferring ‘election’. In the Roman republic voting was a very public, personal and physical affair where citizens would on the appointed election day literally stand next to or close to the candidate for whom they offered their support. This was done on the Campus Martius (the Field of Mars dedicated to the god of war). This act was called in Latin, suffragium. Here is where we derive our word “sufferage”. And again, English received this word from French in the 14th century where its meaning related to intercessory prayer.

I wish I knew where and when the first use was made of the word ‘vote’ in English. It does not appear in Magna Carta, nor would one expect it since this was written in the period of monarchy and Parliament was not created yet. However,the backdrop of religious sentiment is evident in the terminology of our episodic choice of government office holders.

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