Election night 2004: I was 15 years old. My parents were out and I was home by myself not studying for an AP European history test, standing in front of the TV yelling like it was a football game.
Four years later, I’m still plenty invested, but a little less cranky. The difference, I think, is getting to vote. Yell as much as you want at the screen, the pundits can’t hear you and even if they could it’s not like there’s a thing they can do. Vote, on the other hand, and there’s the distinct feeling that no matter how things turn out, at least you spoke your piece.
In an election the size of this one, with all the social/political/historical/international implications, a little town like Nolensville, Tenn., seems like barely a wrinkle in a very wide world. Like a million other small towns, it’s a changing place stuck somewhere between progress and “the way it used to be.”
And yet, it was in the basement of the tiny Nolensville United Methodist Church that I felt like the votes cast here really do count.
Of about 3,000 people registered to vote, about 2,500 had decided to vote early, one of the women working the polls commented to my dad. This meant that there were all of 10 people there first thing in the morning when the polls opened and I had the pleasure of being a line of one while waiting on a voting machine.
Most of the cars in the parking lot probably belonged to the gray-haired ladies inside, at least two of whom were wearing American flag sweaters. The woman working the A-D portion of the table yawned and commented to another woman on the wave of people who had just come in (the parents, me, plus maybe two others).
“So, has it been like this all day?” I asked her.
“Yeah, it’s been slow.”
“No big mobs?” I asked dryly.
“No,” she chuckled. The contrast of all the news footage with the reality in my hometown was comical. Under seven voting stations were set up behind red guide tape on the floor; given the fact there was a bake sale going on outside,
there were more cupcakes than volunteers or voters.
I looked around at the white walls. It seemed smaller than it had back in 2000 when I begged to skip class to go with my parents. A quilt portrait of the church hung on the wall behind a row of empty chairs whose purpose remained unfulfilled. I tried my best to take it all in, but the calm was infectious. Much like the volunteers who were standing around, I glazed over momentarily.
My folks went ahead of me and I made small talk with some of the poll workers. They joked about the “long wait” and said they liked my canvas tote purse.
“Did you paint that yourself?” one asked in her comfortable southern twang.
“That’s very pretty. Did you do it freehand?”
“I drew it in pencil and then just went for it.” They gave the product of my arts and crafts prowess nods of approbation.
Someone finished up and one of them led me over to the station and explained the ballot, which included all the usuals plus a liquor-by-the-drink referendum.
Having researched my candidates, I only paused to wipe a ridiculous grin off my face after checking the box for president.
It was one of those “here we go!” moments. A rite of passage, an event that is relatively common, especially in the realm of suburban adults, yet loaded with meaning for a college student and political junkie.
So, here’s why I felt like maybe my vote really meant something. I hit “confirm,” stepped away and someone called out “first-time voter!”
They clapped for me. The entire place burst out in applause. Obviously public recognition shouldn’t be an incentive for doing your civic duty and I didn’t expect it at all, but it felt like it came from pride, pride and relief. It really doesn’t matter if people like to say that a state is already in the bag for one candidate or the other. Voting is a matter of principle.
Outside the church Nolensville resident Cindy Gadd sat in a chair next to an Obama sign, hardly more than inches from the 100-foot boundary marker.
“How did you get out here?” she asked with surprise when I said I was from the Belmont Vision. We made a deal; I could take her picture if I’d also take one with her Blackberry so she could send it to her son in California. She thanked me for voting about three times.
I marched around for a few minutes with my camera and headed back over to where my folks were.
“Can you take my picture?” I asked my dad. For the past few weeks I’d had something in mind like the kind of picture people take in the driveway leaning on the hood of their first car.
So, how I should I look? Happy? Proud? Serious? Sophisticated? Awed? I opted for satisfied.
In the end that’s all I could ask. This country just witnessed the most important election in decades, maybe even ever depending on whose view you take, and by the universe’s ever-complicated Mouse Trap game board-style of operation, I was legal to vote.
Perhaps Senators McCain and Obama were the ones running, but for all of us heading to the polls for the first time or putting in the effort to secure an absentee ballot, this was our election.