The first thing you need to know is that the guardians-at-the-gate—the poll workers—will not shout out your party affiliation. This is an important fact, if, like me, you vote in a one-party town in a one-party state, and you are the lone red, or purple, or beige, where everyone else is blue.
The guardians will, however, shout out your name—usually they pronounce it correctly—and your address. When you vote, it’s only the ballot part that’s secret: the world, or at least everybody else within earshot at your polling place, will know that you are doing your civic duty. The fact that they will also know you’re not at home keeping an eye on the family silver should not trouble you. Too much.
If you are contemplating your first trip to the polls, I encourage you to go for it. You’ll be participating in the democratic process, which, as processes go, is one of the better ones. You’ll have a hand in making something that really matters happen, of course, but, if you are like me, you will be transported to another time and place.
Where I live, in Western Massachusetts, voters generally proceed to the polls through an unruly arbor of signs touting various candidates. This form of last-minute name-recognition is designed to help you decide your vote for county commissioner or governor’s council, or for some other office you’ve never heard of and suspect doesn’t exist. But the signs add color and pageantry to the moment and herald your entrance into the poll.
Which is probably a gymnasium, “cafetorium,” or library. You will think you are back in school. You must line up. You must state your name clearly. You must—and this is obligatory—be stared down by at least one poll worker old enough to be your great-grandmother. I promise that she won’t rap your knuckles with her ruler—mandatory equipment for poll workers—but she’ll want to.
By the time you receive the ballot, you may begin to have flashbacks to your last final exam. No peeking at anybody else’s answers. No stray marks on your paper. No changing your response. Work as quickly as you can. When you finish, turn in your work to the appropriate proctor, and have your name checked off as you exit.
And then, something unexpected happens. You emerge from the gym, or the library, and the musty odor of sweaty sneakers or moldy books dissipates. The unsettling feeling that all of the teachers you liked least were gathered in one place to monitor you evaporates. You give yourself a little shake: you aced that test by simply showing up.
My neighbor, the one who insists he can vote only if attired in his “lucky” three-piece suit, says that it’s probably a good thing that many Americans don’t vote—something about enhancing the value of his ballot. This view alone is enough to send me running to the polls, even if I do have to step in line, stand up straight, eyes forward, when I arrive.