I love Election Day. I mean, I really, really love it. It’s my mom’s fault, I think. She took us with her to punch the ballot every November at Madison Square Elementary School; she’d let me and my twin sister take turns poking the metal stylus through the metal hole, and afterward we’d each get to pick out a treat from the bake sale going on at the other end of the school gym. I always went with the marshmallow crispy thing or the peanut butter cookie, the kind with the fork tines pressed in the top. Maybe it’s that Pavlovian connection between voting and sweet treats, or my sense that as corrupt as our democracy is, what with all the special interests and corporate money and investment in the disinvestment of a large part of our population, too many people have died fighting for the right to vote for me to just turn up my nose and refuse to participate, but for me, Tuesday was a celebration, an all-day party, a day of joy no matter how things turned out when the polls closed. Things never turn out how I would want them to turn out anyway, so why not enjoy the ride for the ride’s sake.
I started my day-long field trip in democracy by walking my bike past my polling place in Charles Village. There’s no electioneering within so many feet of the door, so the purple-shirted Joan Conway brigade and their rivals, the yellow-shirted Bill Henry-ians, were set up exactly that many feet away from the entrance to the polls. There was no avoiding the gauntlet, but frankly, I didn’t want to. I hadn’t made up my mind yet, I was open to their arguments because hey, that’s what an election is in my ideal world—lots of arguments and people making them, and me getting to feel really important, like I’m finally the decider, for one or two days a year. It was early yet, and I got the feeling these folks were new on the job. They had the skittering lack of eye contact of a newbie summer fundraiser, like those HRC kids who sheepishly hang out on 36th Street and seem desperately afraid you might be willing to talk to them, even though talking to you is their job. Both sides seemed far more interested in chatting with each other than with me, so I said my how ya doin’s to both groups and figured they’d catch me on the other side. Which they did. I got my brochures, finally, and stuffed them in my bike bag to peruse with dessert later that day.
Like any good field trip, this one had no particular plan, so I just got on my bike and snaked my way south and east and south and east and south again in search of signs of democratic life. I saw some folks in the telltale blue of the Mizeur campaign knocking on doors over in the Oliver neighborhood. They were carrying clipboards, so I figured they were there to drag some voters to the polls and not just neighborhood folk who happened to be wandering about in their Mizeur/Coates T-shirts. Just a few blocks away was a school that I thought would be hosting some voting, but no—in spite of the new-looking playground equipment, the place appeared to be shuttered. A lot of this neighborhood seemed to be closed for business, but there were also signs of life—people sitting in the shade of their stoops, smoking cigarettes, laughing, telling stories—and these blue-shirted canvassers were going to try and get all of them to the polls.
Given the nation’s long history of denying people the right to vote—women, African-Americans, immigrants, and the list goes on—it was great to see people out drumming up the vote for a midterm primary election, hardly the most obviously exciting election. At the same time, I wondered how it could seem anything but cynical, people trying to drag you to the polls when the rest of the year it feels like all the policies elected officials promote and put in play effectively forget the folks at the margins. And then there’s the part where so many are simply disenfranchised. In Maryland, you cannot vote if you are convicted of a felony until you’ve served your sentence and completed parole and probation. And who is most likely to get picked up and locked away for felonies in Baltimore? Well, in Maryland, something close to 72 percent of the incarcerated population is African-American, although African-Americans are only 30 percent of the population. Getting out the vote can feel a little self-serving—even when it isn’t meant that way at all—when there are so many structural blocks to keep so many people from voting in the first place.
This celebratory field trip was taking a rough turn, so I turned my bike south and took myself out for ice cream in Canton in an attempt to recalibrate my cynicism with my simultaneous belief that we should all vote. I read my pamphlets as I enjoyed ice cream that was supposed to taste like cake—America the Beautiful!—before heading back up to meet my ladyfriend for a date at the polls. We dressed up in our finest red, white, and blue and wandered down to the school. The same canvassers were there, but this time I’d made up my mind and marched right on in (nope, there wasn’t a line) to do my democratic duty. The whole thing took about three minutes, including a round of friendly chatter with the pollworkers who seemed happy to be joined by voters. We got our “I Voted” stickers and proudly wore them out to dinner. I stopped by the drug store on the way home to get a couple of candy bars—it’s Pavlovian, I said—and the cashier applauded me for voting. “Did you vote today?” I asked. “Nope—I’ve been here all day.” I told her about early voting, and she said she really only liked to vote in big elections. If you don’t vote in the big elections, you’ve got no right to complain, she said. “I didn’t vote today. Can I still complain?” she playfully asked me. Oh, absolutely, I said. There’s a whole lot to complain about.