This is a long tale of my voting experience this morning. I tried to keep it entirely non-partisan and focus on what I saw, heard, and felt, but if you don’t want to risk it, feel free to skip. (But in return, you have to read every other one of my posts for the rest of time! Just kidding.) I wrote this fairly quickly by my standards, and normally I would spend about four years editing something this long, but I wanted to post it before the results started coming in.
Election day, 2016. My alarm goes off at 5:40. The first sounds I hear when I wake up? Police sirens from the nearby highway. Interesting.
The polls open at 6:00. It should take me about 5 minutes to drive to the polling place. The sun’s not up enough at 6:00 for me to be comfortable driving to a place I’ve never been before, so I wait to time my arrival for about 6:30. I figure there will be a group of die-hards there at exactly 6:00 anyway, so it will give them time to clear out.
I get up, put on some clothes, and go. No coffee, no food, no nothing. I’ll be in there and out in no time. I get in my car and discover frost on the windshield. Oops. I turn on the car, turn on the vents, and go back inside for a few minutes to wait. I check to make sure I have all the right paperwork and check Google maps again to make sure I know where I’m going. (Going to new places makes me very nervous even on a good day.)
Back in the car. It’s still pretty dark. I drive past the neighbors from the end of the road, who are walking their dogs, and wave. Internally I curse them because one is one one side of the road, and the other is on the other side, so I have to drive between them and their dogs. Typical pedestrians.
Next I drive past the two houses in my neighborhood with Trump signs in their yards. One of them has two signs, the other has one. They are across the road from each other, so it’s like driving through a Trump checkpoint. It’s been like this for a couple of months. I’ve never met these folks, even though they live two or three houses up the road. (I’m not really a neighbor-meeting kind of person.) I’m sure they are nice folks, but I probably wouldn’t want to talk about politics with them. (Nor would I want to talk about politics with anyone who puts a Clinton sign in their yard, either. People who put political signs in their yards are probably incapable of having a rational discussion about politics.)
It’s entirely possible those Trump-sign folks could have been one of the die-hards waiting in line at the polling place at 6:00. I don’t know one way or another, and probably never will.
I have to cross a divided highway to get to my polling place. On a normal day, I turn left at this point to go to work. This dark, cold morning, I have to drive straight across four lanes of highway and enter the forested depths of the other side, where I’ve never been before. But first I have to wait behind three other cars, which is unusual. All three of them cross the highway to go where I’m going. A few other cars turn off of the highway to follow them into the deep, dark forest. Then it’s my turn.
It doesn’t take long to discover that I’m not going to be in and out of this polling place quickly.
The day before, I spent some time Googling, checking maps and Street Views to make sure I knew where I was going. Double- and triple-checking it actually. Because did I mention it makes me nervous to go to new places? It does. Anyway I noticed on the satellite image that there weren’t that many parking places around this small Baptist church where I will be voting. I counted 28.
That’s fine, I reasoned then. This polling place probably doesn’t serve that many folks. I don’t exactly live in a rural area, but it’s on the rural side of suburbia. The houses in my neighborhood are on at least one acre plots. It’s not like millions of people need to vote at this tiny church with 28 parking spaces. Still, I’m mentally prepared for having a hard time finding a parking spot among those 28 spaces.
I soon discover that I won’t even be making it to that parking lot. Cars are parked along both sides of the road leading to the church. I consider turning around and leaving. I start to do so, rationalizing that I would come back after work, when I see cars parked along a nearby side road. I change my mind and steer for the side road. I enter the subdivision and park in front of someone’s house, behind a long line of other vehicles which did the same.
I get out and start walking. It’s not that far, maybe a quarter of a mile to the church, if that. I’m not happy about this, but it’s better to get it over with in the morning than wait until after work.
I walk past the obligatory signs advertising all the candidates. There are more signs here than I’ve seen anywhere else combined. (The three Trump signs I mentioned above, along with two other Trump signs in other places, are the only yard signs I’ve seen all campaign, and I can only think of a single bumper sticker I’ve noticed.) There are no people accosting me, which is a relief. Too early, I suppose.
There’s a line outside the church on the sidewalk, so I go there. Immediately I hear a man ahead of me talking not-so-quietly about politics with his friend. (More like to his friend.) I’m instantly suspicious and worried. Behind those two is an exasperated-looking middle-aged woman with a shawl on. I saw this woman park somewhere behind me in the subdivision and walk to the church ahead of me. (I waited a bit inside my car to give her time to walk past me.) Behind her in line is a middle-aged black gentleman with earbuds on. Then there’s me. Behind me, another woman I’d guess to be around forty arrives with a child in tow, roughly six or seven. Or maybe three or fourteen. I don’t really know ages that well. He’s old enough to walk and talk and has some kind of gaming device in his hand and he’s coughing a lot.
This group of people is my life for the next hour and a half.
The loud political man talking to his friend isn’t overtly saying who to vote for, because that would be illegal. But he’s talking a lot about the general circumstances of the election and conspiracies and bringing up every fact and figure that he can think of and I get the impression he’s one of those people who tries to subtly plant seeds in voters’ minds while they wait in line. I’m pretty sure dozens of people could hear him talking. I think there’s a name for this kind “soft” influence but I can’t remember what it is. [Passive electioneering, I think.] It’s pretty common. It’s not illegal, but it’s in a gray area that’s basically impossible to enforce. If anyone presses this person, all he has to do is say, “I’m just talking to my friend.” As we get closer to the front of the line, I notice he gets quieter. I imagine it’s because he doesn’t want the poll workers to hear him.
It’s also possible he’s just one of those people who is incapable of having a thought without saying it out loud.
I find this person fascinating in a weird way. The more I observe, the more he becomes the absolute stereotypical picture of a mad conspiracy theorist. He’s dressed in a way that makes me think he repairs heat pumps for a living. He talks as if he’s not even aware that other people can hear him. He doesn’t wait for anyone to acknowledge what he says, he just keeps talking, almost non-stop. He talks about what he’s heard on television and radio, what he thinks of what he’s heard, historical figures and facts, and pretty much any subject you can imagine that might come from a conspiracy blog. But he’s not offensive about it. (To me, at least.) He’s just … verbose. He mentions Trump a few times (in particular his views on women), but not Clinton. Admittedly I’m trying to tune him out so I don’t hear every single word. I wonder if he has a mental illness. I wonder if he has some level of autism. At first I thought he was going to vote Trump but as time went on I changed my mind and pegged him as a Libertarian.
Later as I was leaving, I discovered that the conspiracy theory man was parked right in front of me in a white van. He did in fact work for some kind of repair service. He did not leave with his friend, so now I wonder if that poor guy just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Thankfully, the conspiracy theory man doesn’t turn around much to try to engage those of us stuck behind him. He mainly talks to his friend. Occasionally he interjects a comment into other conversations that happen around him (this happens later, when we’re inside). I don’t see him as a trouble-maker, just a bit off-kilter. The only thing about him that bothers me is the terrifying prospect that I might have to respond to him, which is a social anxiety thing.
While outside, a conversation sparks up between the woman in front of me and the woman behind me. I think they are bonding over having to listen to the conspiracy theory man at the crack of dawn when it’s cold. Since I’m directly between these two, I get roped into this conversation a little bit. I’m envious of the black man who wore ear buds, who is able to stay out of it. I try to smile and nod and be sympathetic to these women’s plight (I’m in it too, after all) while still sending signals that I really do not want to talk to strangers here. (I’m told I send these signals pretty much all the time in any situation.) The conspiracy theory man turns around occasionally to see what they’re talking about. I worry a lot that the conspiracy theory man will join the conversation and have totally opposing views, but that doesn’t happen.
During this brief conversational hell, I learn that both women are trying to vote before getting to work. (As am I.) They are both surprised at how long the line is, and wondering what the holdup is. (Me too.) That might have been the end of it, except the woman behind me decides to explain that she brings her kids to every election because it’s really important that they learn how to vote. Because “you have to do it.” I think to myself that’s not actually true, but I’m not going to say it out loud. She laments that she cannot bring her 16-year-old this year because you have to be 15 or less to accompany parents. Said 16-year-old apparently felt left out. But he’ll be voting next time. Yay for him.
At this point I have listened to this woman with her child for only a few minutes. I’ve already painted her with a broad brush and stereotyped her as one of those moms who talks to everyone, adults in election lines included, as if they are her children. Explaining things, teaching things, etc. The woman in front of me seems to abandon the conversation, possibly drawing the same conclusion. I was only in the conversation by the tiniest of threads to begin with, so I feel it’s okay to turn back to examining the color of paint on the side of the church, the large amount of mold growing in some areas of the walls and roof of the church, the gutter spout end that’s not quite aligned with the drain pipe below it, etc. Henceforth the only words I hear from the mother with child are said to her son, or into a cell phone, explaining to whoever was on the other end that no, she won’t be there in five minutes because she’s still going to be in line in five minutes. I heard a lot of cell phone conversations like that, actually.
Standing outside in the cold, we can see through the windows into the church narthex. (They are plain windows, not stained-glass or anything. This appears to be a recently-built church.) There’s a lot of people in there. Many of the outsiders comment on this, and collectively, our hopes of getting to vote once we reach the front door are dashed.
Time seems to lose all meaning. That kid is coughing a lot. Conspiracy man is talking a lot. My legs and hips and back remind me that I spend a lot of my time sitting-standing up is not my optimal position anymore. Finally we make it inside the doors. We go from near-freezing temperature to hot as hell in the span of a few steps.
At this point we see how far we have left to go. The line turns left immediately inside the door, snakes toward the left wall, then turns around, snakes back through the middle of the room all the way over to the right wall, then turns around again and snakes back to the left wall, where there is a door to the inner voting sanctum. It’s hard not to feel disappointment, because there’s a lot of people in here and this line is not moving very fast.
Near the front door there’s a table with the usual assortment of items you’d expect to see near a church’s front door: Bulletins, pamphlets, bible study meeting flyers, etc. There’s one sample ballot sitting on top of everything, too. Above this table on the wall there’s a very Baptist-looking picture of pious Jesus, the kind that creeps you out the way he stares at you. (I apologize to any Baptists reading this, but I was brought up Episcopalian and we didn’t have creepy Jesus pictures watching us.) Nearby is a memorial plaque with the names of the church members who donated to pay for the pews, along with the names being memorialized. From my own experience with small churches, I suspect these are the names of the wealthiest and most influential members of this congregation.
There’s also a bottle of hand sanitizer on this front table. The conspiracy theory man uses it. Nobody else in my part of the line touches it.
It’s a nice church, I suppose. The narthex is pretty small and mundane, though. As I said I was raised Episcopalian and our churches tend to be as big and fancy as we can afford, with lots of stained glass and shiny gold plates and candlesticks and ornamentation. None of that exists here. It could be a government building.
At the point where the line curves the first time, there is a couch with a stack of yellow sample ballots on it. There are also a few other voting-related pamphlets. I take one of the sample ballots even though I’ve read up on the issues already. I’m still undecided on the county funding issues though. It’s what will affect me the most on this ballot, yet it’s also the most boring, dry reading imaginable. I read over the entire sample ballot, front and back, relieved to have an excuse to avoid looking anywhere else. I have a very detailed mental conversation with myself about the pros and cons of spending county money on various services. (I’ve seen no “simplified” explanations of these issues, though I think one of the pamphlets back on the couch may have explained it, but it’s behind me now.)
Some time later, we hear from a poll worker that one of the three computers is not working. This is the explanation for the “slight” delay.
Since the line snakes back and turns on itself twice, once I’m inside I get the opportunity to hear more conversations from other people in the line as we shuffle past each other. Most are innocuous, centering on the delay. (By this time the conspiracy theory man has quieted down.) Some neighbors recognize each other and say hello. (I’m not sure I would even recognize my neighbors if I saw them in this context, and I sure hope that anxiety-provoking issue doesn’t come up.) Some people are still trying to figure out how they should vote on the downballot issues. There are two state constitution amendments and five different county spending issues on this ballot.
I can hear the poll worker at the inner sanctum door reminding everyone periodically to have their photo identification ready. Poll workers occasionally make their way through the crowded room, asking if anyone needs curbside voting. I think to myself, it’s a bit late for that. I’m apparently not the only one to think that. There’s some murmuring about how the poll workers should be outside asking that.
A woman decides to use the restroom, the door of which I happened to be standing right next to at the time. When she comes out, I’ve moved about five feet forward. She comments a bit too loudly that it was a very large, luxurious restroom. There is some nervous laughter about that.
Two different elderly women at different times make their way through the crowd on walkers from the front door of the church to the door of the inner voting sanctum while I’m there. Everyone stands aside and helps them on their way. Both of them go inside the inner sanctum, vote, and leave while we’re standing in line.
At one point, I start hearing a man’s voice on my left talking somewhat passionately (but not loudly) in a political vein. I think he might be another conspiracy theory man, but he’s talking about Jesus and looking into hearts. Again, not telling anyone what to do, just sort of musing out loud. He sounds very much like a Baptist minister, in fact. He’s got the trademark compelling speaking style and sing-songy tone. I wonder if he’s the minister of this very church. He’s not wearing a suit, though, and I think all Baptist ministers are supposed to wear suits.
At another point I’m very surprised to hear an older gentleman who has a very obvious Russian (or I guess I should say Eastern European because I have no idea what actual country) accent. His voice is deep and resonant, and he’d be great at voiceover work. He seems understandably shy, but he’s answering questions from the women in front of him about his yard. I imagine the women are trying to determine if he’s a spy for Putin. Or maybe they just like his accent.
I’m struck by how many different cultural groups are in this room at the same time. There are blacks and whites, young and old, rural people and city people, men and women, religious people and conspiracy nuts, people who look wealthy and people who look poor, retired people, people hurrying to jobs, and people (presumably) in school. I saw one young woman who might have been Muslim. I don’t see any obvious Hispanics but I’m sure there are some around somewhere. (I am aware that I’m doing all of this racial profiling entirely based on looks and probably shouldn’t.) It’s kind of amazing to see, when you think about it. These are demographics that rarely intersect in the normal course of life. I’ve heard people express this sentiment about election lines before but it’s never really hit home with me until now.
Naturally I try to imagine how all of these people are voting. It’s hard to tell. According to Nate Silver, the men are voting for Trump, the women are voting for Clinton, but it’s never that simple. I’m sure the mother and child behind me are voting for Clinton, even though she hasn’t said. She just sounds like the kind of person who would not by shy about jumping in on Facebook to repudiate something Trump said. The shawl woman in front of me is a toss-up, giving away nothing. She’s old enough to have built up a long-standing hatred of the Clintons, so I wouldn’t bet on her either way. By this point I’ve concluded, based solely on the volume of odd political trivia that he knows, that the conspiracy theory man is voting for Johnson. (I guess it’s equally odd that I knew a lot of that trivia, too.) The black man with ear buds is giving no hints either, but statistically is probably voting for Clinton.
For myself, I’m trying not make eye contact with anyone and I remain completely blank-faced. Once or twice I accidentally meet somebody’s eyes and look away as if I’ve been shocked. I’m looking at the texture of the walls, I’m looking at the wood grain on the doors, I’m looking at people’s shoes. I’m also trying not to jump a mile in the air whenever the woman’s kid behind me accidentally touches me. I’m trying very hard not to think about all the people coughing and sneezing in this room.
In the final stretch of the line, I get to look inside the church itself, which is empty. The pews are made of light-colored wood, which I find strange because I’m used to dark-colored pews. It’s a very modern-looking, carpeted worship area. I don’t see anything like an organ, but it might be hidden somewhere. There’s band equipment up on the “stage,” where the altar would be in an Episcopal church. We don’t have bands in the front of Episcopal churches, but I’m pretty what I’m seeing here is normal for a Baptist church. I don’t catch too many details because I think the strain of remaining calm is starting to wear me out. I really want this to be over.
There’s a small sofa near the end of the line. This one’s not covered with papers, so some people sit down for a brief rest, but I stay standing. I know it’s probably going to hurt to sit down and get back up by this point.
Finally I get to the front of the line. The line to reach the inner sanctum, that is. There are more lines ahead, albeit much shorter ones. We are only allowed to enter the inner sanctum one at a time. There is a sign by the door that says no electronic devices are allowed inside, even though I’m pretty sure I read it was legal to take a selfie at the voting booth in Virginia. I don’t particularly care. I’ve already turned my phone off and left it in my pocket. I haven’t used it at any point. I thought about taking a picture of the mass of cars outside, but decided not to. I’m sure there will be plenty of footage of long-lines-at-polling-places on the local news. History will not forget this day because I didn’t take a picture. (Besides, I’m a little worried somebody will say something to me about it.)
The process of voting at this polling place is a little different than I’ve experienced before. I’ve used the little punch-out ballots where you use a little metal pen that looks like a circuit tester to punch holes in your choices, and I’ve used electronic voting machines where you tap the screen and get a mass of germs on your finger. This is the first time I’ve used a scanned ballot.
When a spot opens up, I’m directed to a table where I hand over my photo ID to a nice old lady. (The voter ID requirement in Virginia was added in 2012, I believe.) The nice old lady can’t pronounce my name, so I have to demonstrate it for her, which is the same routine I go through every single time I ever meet another human being. She doesn’t need to know anyway, as she types my name into a computer, and this is when I realize that this must be one of the infamous computers that isn’t working. Indeed, there are three computer stations at the table, and only two are occupied.
I wait anxiously for the nice old lady to read her computer screen, because this is the point in 2012 when I learned that the address on the driver’s license has to match the voting address records, and back then, I forgot to do that. (I am extremely bad at keeping records and licenses up-to-date.) This year, I am 159.8% sure that everything is correct, but I’m still very nervous about it, because I vividly remember leaving the polling place in 2012 feeling like the tiniest human being on earth, feeling like everyone was staring at me, feeling like I wished I could crawl into a hole and die. I was supposed to go back and get some additional paperwork or something, but I never did, because the thought of returning to that place on that day was just too mortifying. Such is life with social anxiety. (I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone about that, now that I think about it.) (Yes, I know I could have done this or that or the other thing and still voted. Go away.)
The nice old lady prints out a receipt from a little printer, hands it to me, along with my driver’s license, and now I can go get the actual ballot. I never actually read what was on that piece of paper, because I handed it to another woman roughly 10 seconds later. That receipt must have been in order because she gave me a white paper ballot with questions on both sides, roughly the size and weight of a piece of heavy A4-sized paper.
An usher directs me to a voting booth. It is not so much a booth as it is a tiny table that resembles the inside of a cube with two sides removed. There’s a writing surface there and a ball-point pen on a chain. There’s another booth on my left, and the black man with earbuds is voting there. It feels uncomfortably public for me despite being a private voting booth. Still, unless someone is standing right next to me they shouldn’t be able to see what I put on the ballot. For now, at least.
I use the pen to mark my selections. It’s like a Scan-Tron test from back in my school days. Fill in the circle next to your selection, staying inside the lines. I’ve never had to do this before when voting. I try to be careful so there’s no question about how I’m voting. It occurs to me that this is just about the most archaic possible way to vote in 2016, because I’m imagining that someone is going to pick this up at some point and look at it to count my votes.
Little did I know the high-tech machine that awaited me. After marking my ballot I move to another line with about five or six people in it. The conspiracy theory man is just ahead of me in this line, but he’s silent now. I realize I’m just standing right out there in the open where God and everyone could read my ballot if they really wanted to. I have never experienced this before. I try to hold my ballot against my leg so nobody could see it, but it’s two-sided, so that was basically impossible. I could not read anyone else’s ballot, so I consoled myself that nobody else could read mine. (Then again, I was deliberately trying to avoid doing that, and my eyes are horrible these days anyway.)
At the front of this line I have the honor of feeding my ballot into a machine of the modern age: A flatbed scanner. I watch my ballot slide inside the gullet of this machine and a verification message appears on the screen connected to it. I don’t see exactly what it said, but the poll worker thanks me for my vote, not-so-subtly indicating that I should get the hell out of the way for the next person.
As an IT worker in daily life, I naturally find myself deconstructing all of the infrastructure of this voting system. The entire process feels incredibly prone to errors. It occurs to me, though, that scanning a paper ballot has a built-in data backup of my vote selection. If the scanner doesn’t work for whatever reason, or its hard drive crashes, or whatever, they can always visually inspect my ballot later. They could also accidentally scan it four or four thousand times. One wonders if there is any software mechanism in place to prevent duplicate scanning of the same ballot. Do the ballots have serial numbers printed on them? That’s what I’d use if I were writing that software.
Anyway, at this point I’m done with this nightmare. I see that the conspiracy theory man is just leaving through a nearby exit door. Before I can leave, however, I must partake in the time-honored tradition of getting an “I voted” sticker from the oldest living woman in the precinct. I don’t know how they always get the exact same woman to give out these stickers in every single election I’ve ever participated in, but there she is, and I get a sticker. It’s fancier than the last one I got.
I walk slowly to the exit now, giving the conspiracy theory man plenty of time to get ahead of me, because I do not want to talk to him now. I want to flee this social hellscape. I also can’t help but notice that every one of the coughing, sneezing people back in that room has touched this door knob I’m using. When I get outside, I’m relieved to see the conspiracy theory man is well ahead of me. The sun is shining brightly, but it’s still pretty cold.
I walk back to my car, keeping a very safe distance behind the conspiracy theory man who is walking in the same direction, apparently in a great mood. I’m generally pleased with myself for sticking this out, but I feel like I’ve been punched repeatedly and then run over by a large truck. I navigate around cars and trucks trying to drive on the road packed with parked cars.
It turns out the conspiracy theory man leaves in a white van that was parked right in front of me. The woman with the shawl, who was parked behind me somewhere, appears to be gone, but it’s hard to tell because more cars have appeared in this area of the subdivision. I would hate to live there on a day like this. I collapse in my car, groaning from the pain in my lower back. I’m really out of shape. Weirdly, it hasn’t improved after aging and doing no exercise.
I arrived about 6:30, and I’m leaving about 8:00. I was standing up for an hour and half! On my feet! At least I wore my tennis shoes. When I get home I feel shell-shocked, but I’m very proud of myself for not freaking out and running for my life.
It takes me some time to regroup. I stare at Twitter for a while. I write some dumb tweets. I make a dumb picture showing the exact way that my voting line curved around in that room. Doing those things is soothing. Eventually I put on work clothes without taking a shower or even washing my face and go to work. I spend a lot of time there writing. :)