Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The day I went to the polls and didn't vote

In the USA, nobody votes for President. People vote for Electoral College delegates. It's a quirk of the US electoral system I like to point out when Americans ask why Brits don't directly elect their leaders. Technically, Americans don't directly vote for their leader either!

But I didn't vote at all. That's because I'm not a US Citizen. Green Card holders can't vote and registering to vote here would be a crime. Cue ironic jokes about taxation without representation.

I did, however, go to the polls to see how democracy works in rural America.

Voting took place in the local volunteer fire station. A large hall with fire trucks parked at one end, next to walls filled with fire hoses and firefighters' jackets. There were rows of tables piled with kids' toys and books, which the station was selling on a 'pay what you will basis'. Kids would run into the hall and make a bee-line for the toys. Parents would follow, ushering their kids away and explaining "I've got to vote first."

The two parties had pitched their signs on either side of the entrance. Democrats were on the left and Republicans were on the right. This made me smile. Party volunteers handed out leaflets with their respective ballots to guide voters. During voting lulls, they bantered with each other, across the aisle, about local planning measures, American Football, and the residual damage of the storm last week.

The voting machines were in another room. These electronic machines allowed voters to pick straight tickets or choose their candidates before pressing the satisfyingly red "VOTE HERE" button. Then the machines would beep and the lights would go out - the sound of a modern democracy. The UK still uses pencil and paper: You mark your X on the ballot and post it into a locked box which is later emptied and counted by hand.

Polling staff asked each voter, "do you have photo ID?"

Answers and attitudes were mixed. Those who refused were reminded they would need it next time. This year Pennsylvania had put through a measure to require photo ID from voters at the polls. It was challenged in court, and the court decided it would not go into force until 2013. But this lead to confusion and concern - commercials and mailers had already told voters they needed ID and a last-minute effort had to reassure them that they didn't. Would some voters without ID fail to turn up?

After the morning queues, voting remained steady. Comments from staff and volunteers indicated that turn-out seemed high.

There was some confusion about the voter ID issue though. There were reports of signs in polling stations falsely telling voters that photo ID was necessary. Voters occasionally asked if they needed ID after all.

But generally it was jovial. Kids played with the toys. Women stood in huddles and gossiped. Neighbors consoled each other over fallen trees or continuing power blackouts from the storm. People voted. Some strode in and avoided the party volunteers. Some talked about voting.

A lady, handed a Republican ballot sheet, glanced at it and exclaimed "Oh I'm not voting for Romney. I'm female."

But one older lady, who took ballot lists from both parties, was pensive and uncertain. "This is hard," She whispered. "It was hard last time, but it's hard this time. I just don't know."

Others confidently praised one party's presidential candidate but showed uncertainty over the local candidate. Some voters took the ballot sheet from one party volunteer but smiled at, or even winked at, the other.

Pennsylvania is a categorically purple state. As a state it votes for both Republicans and Democrats. Counties, neighborhoods, families vote for both. Individuals vote for both.

There is sometimes a lot of focus on the political polarization in America. Just this weekend the latest episode of the NPR show This American Life told the story of Americans who felt so passionate about their political beliefs that it affected their relationships. Families torn apart by their opposing views. People who disagreed so strongly that they could not live side by side, or speak to each other.

But that is only one side of the story. The other side was playing out here at the polls in a rural, slightly conservative, district of Pennsylvania.

Later in the afternoon a middle-aged man who'd just voted lamented that his wife might not have voted the same way as he. "She listens to too much of that NPR stuff!" He laughed before leaving.

I like to imagine he went home to watch the election results with his wife, and that today they both got up and went about their daily lives, just like the rest of America.


  1. I really like this. I have worked polling locales and exit polls before, and it is extremely interesting to observe people and conversations.

    1. Thanks, it was really interesting to be on the sidelines, as it were, during this moment in the country of my residence.

  2. actually reading this makes me glad i vote absentee. skip all the weird people divided amongst two parties. and indeed. we don't directly vote our presidents. i kind of avoid politics as a discussion point at all costs and am quite honestly glad to get the politcal bashing each other commercials out of my life for awhile.

    1. I'm a politics graduate and the processes fascinate me, but I don't generally have an interest in blogging about it. However, from a cultural stand point (which I GUESS you could say I like to blog about) I find it very interesting, especially the differences between the UK and the USA. Especially when I live in a country where I can't vote.

      One really cool thing about voting in the UK is that you can do absentee/postal ballot, but you can also do a proxy vote. That's where you nominate someone (you trust) to physically go to the polls and vote on your behalf. I got to do it for a friend once, and I felt extra virtuous that day!

  3. Great post! I haven't heard that episode of This American Life yet, but I'm sure I will soon. I love that show.

    1. Thanks! I love TAL too. It's one of the few podcasts I download regularly, and have done for quite some time now.

  4. Really interesting post. I followed the results on Radio 4 dozing in and out of sleep, it is very much a spectacle from this side of the world.

    1. Yes, that's how I experienced it four years ago. I remember not even being able to stay up late because I had a hectic work schedule the next day. Woke up and Radio 4 told me who the USA had elected. So it was such a different experience actually being here.