Twelve minutes of popular sovereignty

November 8, 2011

5:55am: I close the door to my car and pull out onto the street. It’s chilly and dark. I don’t turn on the radio, because it’s only a two-minute drive. I always go to the polls in the early morning. To beat the crowds, I would say. But also because I like going alone. Sure, it’s fun to take kids into a voting booth and all that jazz. But it’s not the same. Ever sit in a pew in an empty church and stare at the stained glass? Or stand on a deserted football field after dark and look up at the posts?

5:56am: I pull up at the one four-way stop on the trip. I don’t know why and I guess it’s kind of awkward to admit this, but I always get mild butterflies in my stomach when I’m on my way to vote. Not like climbing the lift-hill on a roller coaster butterflies or 10 seconds before the whistle blows to start a rugby game butterflies; there’s nothing unknown about to happen. I think it’s more the connection to the process, the idea that I’m about to do something real and consequential. Something that will tie me to the past and tie me to the future.

5:57am: I pull into the parking lot and park the car. I live in the Nottaway precinct of the Providence District of Fairfax County in the state of Virginia in the United States of America.  Impassioned revolutions overthrow monarchs and tyrants, both then and now. But the alternative system, the democratic system, is held together by solving a logistical nightmare. And so this is where I vote: an old house on a couple acres of cleared land in a park. There are about a dozen cars in the parking lot.

5:58am: I walk past the party people. Virginia law does not allow any electioneering within 40 feet of the polling place, but 40 feet is not very far, and both parties are already stationed at their usual spots, at the edge of the parking lot in front of the sidewalk up to the front door of the house. Each side offers me a ballot, pre-marked with the party-endorsed candidates to serve as a guide in the booth. It brings to mind what I’ve read of 19th century elections, prior to the Australian ballot, when you voted with your own ticket and often got it from a party representative outside the polling place. I take one of each.

5:59am: I get in line. This is not like the 19th century. It’s dead quiet. No bands, no liquor, no fights. As Richard Bensel conveys in his majestic survey of voting in the 1800s, it’s safer and less corrupt now, but it’s also a lot less exciting and a lot less fun. There are four people ahead of me. No one says a word. Inside the house, we can see poll workers scrambling with final preparations. This is either the most exciting dullness or the most dull excitement in the world. At any rate, it’s some combination of those two words.

6:00am: A woman opens the doors. “Alright everyone, the polls are open!” And we shuffle into the house. Just past the vestibule I enter a small room, probably once a study, and proceed to the table labled “A – K.” Two older women are sitting at the table, one holding a thick book of names, the other a piece of paper covered in numbers and a stack of green cards. They will repeat their tasks 500 times or more today. But for now it’s fresh and exciting. Both of them are eating donuts and drinking coffee, the universal poll-worker compensation.

6:01am: I tell them my name. They look it up in the thick book, and then verify my address with me verbally. I can see my wife’s name just below mine. With both kids in tow for a mid-day vote, she will not have the same experience as me. The second woman calls out “Voter number 3″ and crosses off the three on her piece of paper. Looks up at me and smiles. Then she hands me a green card. It’s says “Fairfax County Voter Card — Do Not Remove From Polling Place.” On the back are some instructions. Unlike most of the signage in the polling place, it is written in English only. By the end of the day it will be worn and wrinkled. But right now it’s pristine.

6:02am: I walk down the hall to the polling room. It’s not like the polling setups of my childhood in upstate New York, with the heavy metal stand-up voting machines and metal levers and huge handle that closes the curtain behind you. It’s both more old and more new than that. The actual voting “booths” are just tall desks, each with a small table-top touch-screen voting machine, almost like the old pictures you see of people dropping slips of paper into actual boxes. Not much privacy. But high-tech to the max. There’s an optical-scan option, but no one is taking it.

6:03am: I hand my green card to a poll worker. She directs me to a touch-screen, follows me over, and puts a keycard in the machine. I look around the polling room and at the three other touch-screen booths set up. At one is an older African-American man, holding a sample ballot from one of the parties and dutifully marking his choices. At another is a younger woman being assisted by a poll worker, her computer evidently malfunctioning. The third is empty, one voter having left and another yet to arrive.

6:04am: I mark each of my votes. The touch-screen is silent. No mechanical click like the lever supstate. No sound of graphite rubbing like the paper ballots. I take my time. Board of Supervisors. State Senate. County Sheriff.  At the end, the final screen includes a large flashing box that says “Click here to cast your VOTE.” I click and I cast. I walk away from the touch-screen. A poll worker hands me a sticker featuring an American flag and the words “I voted.” I put it on.

6:05am: I walk out of the voting room. There’s a door that leads through a screened-porch and out to the front yard. The line of voters has grown longer, but it’s still silent. A small garbage can stands ready to collect party sample ballot. I drop both of mine in.  I walk past the party tables, but they don’t even see me; all their attention is focused on those still-yet to vote.

6:06am: I climb in my car and look back up at the house.It’s still dark outside. All the lights are on in the house, and I can see people through the illuminated windows: reporting their names, being handed green cards, standing in the voting room. I turn the ignition, pull out of the parking lot and turn onto the access road. A long line of headlights streams my way. More voters. More citizens.

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5 Responses to Twelve minutes of popular sovereignty

  1. Randy on November 9, 2011 at 7:17 am

    Here’s my version:

    6:21 The custom phone ring that is assigned to my wife interrupts Alec Baldwin’s narration of a show on NATGEO Wild. A documentary about a Great White shark (Haai) and a Fur Seal (Rob) in South Africa. I have my 6 year old answer the phone because I know EXACTLY why she is calling. I can feel my heart rate kick into a higher gear as I try to convince myself not to lose it when I take the phone from my daughter. The deal was that my wife would leave early from work in order for me to get to the polls in time, alone, because otherwise I’d be towing a sick 6 year old, an energetic 4 year old, and a 6 month old in an awkward-to-carry infant car seat. I get the phone from my daughter and before she has a chance to explain I say, “If I miss voting, you can’t vote in the national elections”! As we hang up, I swore I heard the unimpressive acceleration of a 2000 Toyota Solara.

    6:32 Fuck it. “Kids get your shoes on, we’re going to vote.” A short and weak protest from the 6 year old was met with me saying, “don’t worry sweetie, you won’t be getting out of the car and you don’t have to get out of your pajamas.” She had her PJs on all day. Deal!

    6:40 We’re all loaded up and I’m debating the judgment or lack thereof of leaving the kids in the car versus dragging them all inside (one of them with bed head and in her PJs with a fever). I first have to find my polling place, a church on Hunter Mill Rd. We moved a year ago and this is the first time I’m using my “assigned” polling place. I actually know the church – I pass it almost everyday but now I’m in complete doubt. Is it a left or a right onto Hunter Mill off of Vale? The wrong direction and I may not be voting tonight. This in Northern Virginia and it’s rush hour. NO time for wrong turns. The line of cars at the light to turn onto Hunter Mill is easily 20 deep. I won’t make the next cycle so I pull out the “smartphone” and call up Maps. The light turns green and I make the cycle, it’s gut decision time and I turn left while the “smartphone” is still trying to load the app. Useless. I made the correct decision but in the dark with no lights or Neon “VOTE HERE” sign I blow past the church. No problem, whip a U-ey and I’m in business.

    6:51 I pull into the gravel parking lot with decent lighting and a lot of overgrown trees. I’ve made my decision. The kids (all of them) will stay in the car. Next question is, do I park under a street light where passer by’s might notice three kids in a car without an adult? Or do I park in the dark and potentially scare the ever living shit out of my kids. I chose something in between. Not pitch black but not lit up like a dutch brothel either. I also parked away from other cars, so I felt pretty good that I was going to be able to pull this off without Fairfax’s finest meeting me upon my return. “Kids, are you going to be okay? I’m only going to be a few minutes – and it’s your mother’s fault.” That last part I said in my head, but I really wanted to say it. They responded happily and confidently that they’d be fine and take good care of the baby. Awesome. They get extra candy tonight from their Halloween bags.

    6:53 I pass the “greeters”. I accept one sample ballot and turn the other guy’s offer for a sample ballot away with a smile and wave off saying, “don’t worry, this sheet tells me what NOT to do.” I turn to the guy who first gave me the ballot sheet and shoot him a wink. Objective complete, they’re all confused and will probably mention it to their families over dinner tonight. Or not.

    I too, like others, get that nervous feeling while walking into the polling place. To this day I’m not sure if it’s the weight of this awesome responsibility, a feeling of gratefulness to live in this country with this electoral process, or if I’m worried I’m going to fuck it up somehow. You know, trip over a cord knocking down the voting machine; or maybe my name might not be in that big book whereby it’ll cause a scene and people will look over and wonder what kind of B.S. I’m trying to pull. My address HAS changed; is the book going to be updated? Damnit, I knew I should have reviewed the voter’s rights stuff. Any number of things could go wrong and THAT could be why I’m nervous. I hope it’s the former though.

    6:57 Everything checks, I’m in the booth and tapping away at the screen. The conspiracy theorist in me has me checking that the machine will truly only allow me to vote for “Not more than three candidates.” It checks. I get to the car, no cops are waiting the inside is still warm, nobody’s screaming and they’re as happy as when I left them. Probably poor judgement, but this country was founded by people taking risks…right? I owe it to them.

    7:10 Walk in the house and my wife is standing there apologetically. How can I possibly rip into her. Yes, it happens all the time. Yes, it’s really hard to get anywhere on time with her without hounding. It IS northern Virginia traffic and she DID made an effort to get home early after working all day. So I politely smile and say, “What’s for dinner?”

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