Early Voting: It’s an Adventure

By Karin Caifa in Arlington, VA

The 2008 election has been one of many firsts, including a personal first for me. For the first time in my voting history, I am a battleground voter. After an entire voter lifetime in solidly blue New York, my vote really counts this time Or, as someone said in a more blunt fashion, “Someone finally cares what you think.”

Of course, I’ll be elsewhere on Election Day. Usually it’s no biggie – during college I filled out the poster-sized absentee ballot and mailed it in. But for such an historic election, I wanted to experience the process live and in-person. My newly adopted state of Virginia doesn’t really have “early voting,” though it has been tagged as such, grouping us with the other battleground states that are trying to ease an anticipated crush of voters on Tuesday. According to Virginia’s Board of Elections, it’s really “Absentee in Person” balloting, and voters like me have to satisfy one of at least  17 reasons why we can’t vote on Tuesday. (But “Absentee in Person” seems like a weird oxymoron, does it not?)

I finally made the decision to go last night, after work. After all, how many people in Arlington County could possibly satisfy those requirements to vote “Absentee in Person”? And if they did, who would go out and vote on a Thursday night?

Apparently me and like 800 other people. The election monitor at the front of the line, sporting a snazzy flourescent yellow vest, told those of us coming through the door that the wait would be 90 minutes. The woman at the back of the line said 2 hours. And like the lines for the rides at Disneyworld, there were signs posted thoughout the little maze they mapped out for us in green tape in and around the courthouse lobby: “90 minutes from this point,” “45 minutes from this point.”

The experience was not for the faint of heart. Or for those who’d skipped lunch. Many succumbed to the call of a grumbling stomach. Others dropped out due to uncomfortable shoes. Some came more prepared than others. In addition to those who brought books and iPods, there were those who toted folding chairs, and one guy who drew stares for wheeling in a suitcase with a travel pillow attached. He’d really just come from the airport, but that suitcase made him a nice and comfortable little seat as the evening went on. And on. And on. It did, in fact, take me two hours to reach the point where my ballot was officially cast. I wanted, at the very least, one of those stickers that says, “I voted.” Or a medal. Or something more fabulous, marking my electoral achievement in rhinestones. (The rhinestone train of thought derailed when I realized I was finally free to use the ladies’ room.)

All kidding aside, it could have been much worse. And in many places across the country — most notably Florida — it has been. It just seems ironic that in an society that has streamlined the process for everything from withdrawing cash to dropping off dry cleaning to ordering a hamburger, that something as serious as participation in democracy would require a daunting two-hour wait. A sacrifice that some, unfortunately, are not able — or willing — to make.

I am curious to see what the lines will look like on Tuesday. I am not the only one anticipating that they will be worse. I asked one of the election monitors if she was bracing herself for the big day. “Are you kidding?” she replied. “I’m not coming anywhere near this place on Election Day. It’s going to be a zoo.”

Karin Caifa is a political producer with CNN who contributes to this blog via CNN’s Running Mates.

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