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.