If you’ve read the voter guides, followed the news, weighed your options, considered your guiding principles and are—like I am—willing to let providence have a hand in the outcome, then the republic is sound whether we agree or not.
But I think we might agree on one thing: that after all the shouting has faded into hoarse whispers, the nonspirational speeches and brain-numbing talking points forgotten, the disgust registered, the mud dried and the money spent, the final step of an election cycle—the polling place—is perhaps one of the most pleasantly unifying experiences of American life. That address on the back of your sample ballot is America at its best, and no matter where it is, it holds the air of a sacred place.
Mine is in a musty fluorescent-lighted fellowship room scented with coffee and doughnuts at the Lutheran Church around the corner. There are others in my city, at elementary schools, a city-owned log cabin at a local park, and the common room of an assisted living complex. Within 100 feet of the entrance to each of these places is a campaign-free zone, a place where you can rest your cranky senses from the assault of glossy smiling photos in the mailbox, nasty radio and TV ads, and rage-fueling robo-calls. It’s like riding into Fort Apache with the Indians a quarter mile behind you (forgive the political incorrectness and trite movie cliché).
With sample ballot already filled out and in hand, this whole process can take up to a full ten minutes from start to finish (so it’s understandable for some busy people to skip voting altogether, given the considerable sacrifice of time). But again, if you don’t want to vote don’t let me encourage you.
I’ll be there right on time as the place opens, and will likely be waiting with a few other eager voters as the poll workers get things in order. Poll work used to be the domain of “elderly with nothing else to do,” but lately younger (meaning middle-aged) people have bounded onto the field. No matter how old or young, there’s always something that needs to be done past opening hour; it’s just part of the process. You just wait for a few minutes and take it all in—the clumsily human part of democracy. There’s always a respectful silence in the line, and nobody at this point cares what your affiliation is, especially the volunteers. They’ll give you a warm welcome even if you plan to vote a straight fascist ticket.
You don’t need to show your ID—just provide your name and address. A very pleasant and painstakingly thorough poll worker will line out your name as you sign in. Unlike the cereal aisle at the market, there are no confusing choices beyond “Democrat,” “Republican,” or “Independent.” The poll workers are always full of warm conversation of the post office/barber shop variety. But don’t let the pleasantries fool you—the polling place is also home to a gravitas that matches the situation, because the little marks made on the ballot will determine public policy outcomes for years. But if you’re not voting, just enjoy the conversation and the free coffee.
People with kids will be there, too. In fact, you’ll run into all types—the gardener and the local real estate broker; the cop and the recovering alcoholic; the millionaire and the guy who’s got three weeks left on his unemployment benefits and no prospects. All of them are voting with one goal in mind: the best outcome for the city, the state, and the country. Sure, you can argue the methods, but this is a participatory form of government, and since we’re not likely to be invited to the table at any other event, this is where we have the power to awe leaders and potential leaders into remembering just who works for whom. And I'm using "awe" with all the weight and forcefulness the word is owed.
For you who will vote, there will be an uninterrupted and private time in the polling booth, where you will start to feel better immediately as you tick your way down the ballot you’ve already filled out. Don’t go there undecided—it’s a terrible feeling to be getting acquainted with the issues from the past 16 months in a 2 x 2 enclosure while standing. But since you might not be voting, don’t worry about that.
After you’ve deposited the ballot and kept your proof-of-vote stub, you get the “I Voted” sticker from yet another cheerful volunteer. Wear it with pride. Lord it over everyone. Enjoy it. Sure it’s tacky, but so what? So is not voting. You leave there nodding and bidding good day to the man or woman who may have cancelled out your whole ballot. But that’s the way it is, and that’s why a little surrender to providence always sugars the possible bitterness.
You’ll get another pleasant goodbye and thank you before you leave. They mean it, too. They’re lonely a lot of the time, so a visit from a voter, even one as confused, irritated, and cynical as I am, is like a letter from home. And they have always eased my mind, no matter what the issue on the ballot. I always leave feeling better, and it’s free.
Of course you don’t really have to vote, but since it’s so close and the benefits so obvious and (though fleeting) immensely rewarding, why not?