civics lesson

Mine is not a tragic story of disenfranchisement.   Mostly, it’s about a mistake and my chagrin.  But also an unintentional affective instruction in the vicissitudes of citizenship, will, and agency.

On the day of the Maryland primary, eager to do my civic duty, I untethered myself from my laptop and headed out to vote.   I am quite thoroughly unimpressed by any of the candidates for president, but was very keen to vote in the local elections.  I’ve become deeply fond of Baltimore, and fallen totally in love with my neighborhood, and so I felt invested in a way that is unfamiliar to me, but instructive as a reminder of how it feels to want to belong to something, or someplace.  Voter registration card and ID (just in case) in hand, off I went.

voting booth
Schoolhouse Rock: Why didn’t you warn me?

I proffered my documents to the friendly election worker, who typed my name into her computer and then squinted at the screen.  She asked me to confirm my date of birth and my address.   I did.  More squinting.  And then she read aloud, pausing heavily between each word, the error message my information had generated: I was ineligible to vote in the primary because I had not registered with a political party.

Philosophically, my Independent status is a response to my profound disappointment with the Democrats and my sense that the two-party system is less than ideal.  It’s also a holdover from my time in Ohio, which has an open-primary system, so free-thinking “Independents” like yours truly can simply saunter into the polling place on primary day and request whichever ballot they’d prefer.

Not so in Maryland.  And so I left the polling station in defeat, taking the long way around to avoid the cheerful electioneers whom I had so confidently stiff-armed as I breezed past on my way in, saying I did not need their flyers because I already knew who I would be voting for.

Certainly, this failure is my fault for not learning the Maryland voting laws (and not trying to vote in a previous primary election during the six and a half years that I have lived in Maryland prior to this one – I am a latecomer to this particular civic obligation.)  And I take comfort in the fact that I am not the only person who thinks that this current electoral system, with its seemingly arbitrary variability from state to state, is a bit of a shambles.

But the thing that surprised me the most was the intensity of my own anger, muddled with embarrassment, at what transpired.  Once my ire had waned, I realized that in many ways, the experience of not voting was much  more interesting than the experience of voting would have been, affectively.

For as much as I think and write about citizenship, and argue often that it is an affective as well as a political phenomenon, I often forget-by virtue of my privilege, for sure-how it feels.

There was my initial enthusiasm, my feeling of purpose as I set out on this civic errand. This feeling was pronounced, but I can’t quite specify its origin or orientation – a reminder, I guess, of how the abstract notion of citizenship can inspire us to act on motivations we might not be able to articulate.  I was eager to participate in the political life of my community, even as I knew, rationally, that my one lonely little vote was not going to make a difference.  And yet.

Because I am so used to exercising my franchise, and accustomed to the state’s recognition of my citizenship, my first reaction to the election worker’s pronouncement of my ineligibility to vote was noncomprehension.  I was befuddled, and heard myself asking repeatedly for clarification.  The election worker fidgeted nervously (though I don’t think I looked like someone about to make a scene) and asked if I wanted to “talk to someone.”  No, thank you.  My confusion reflects, I think, what happens in the space beyond the state’s matrix of intelligibility and recognition, where rights and procedures become incompatible.

And then I was embarrassed.  By my own lack of preparation, but also, and more sharply, by my (inevitable) failure, the foolishness of my attempt.  I imagined the election workers and the other, successful voters, shaking their heads and chuckling once I was clear of the elementary-school gymnasium.  I was reminded how exclusion from the body politic feels, and how ludicrous demands for inclusion can suddenly seem when they are denied.

By the time I got home, I was angry, but diffusely and aimlessly, stomping mad at the whole ridiculous system.  I Googled the laws governing Maryland primaries just to be sure I wasn’t the victim of bureaucratic incompetence.  Nope.  Not this time.

So I remained angry until the election results came in, and somehow the revelation that my hypothetical votes would have been inconsequential made the whole thing more palatable, a cold resolution to the abiding conundrum posed by the relationship between individuality and the democratic process.

And now my dilemma is whether to declare a party affiliation so I can vote the next time around, a possibility that strikes me as disingenuous and expedient in equal measure.





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