On November 4th, 2008, I rode my bike to Voting Precinct 006 at St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church and School in Waterford Township, Michigan. I stood in line, I presented the proper credentials, I was issued one voting ballot, and I filled it out. I did not vote.
I had come to my polling-place intending to cast my vote for Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates that had not made it onto the Michigan ballot: Gloria La Riva for President and Eugene Puryear for Vice President. These are the candidates of The Party for Socialism and Liberation. As a small, mostly-marginalized political party, the names of these candidates were not listed among the options before me. So, when I approached the voting booth - ballot in hand - I meant to write-in these candidates’ names; whom I felt best represented my interests and desires for the nation at large.
In these politically nepotistic and insular times it seems that a majority of the populace cannot understand why anyone would vote off-ticket. These unnamed, third-party candidates have no real chance of being elected, after all. So why not choose one of the mainstream candidates who, at least, represent the better of the options we are presented with?
There are two main reasons that I decided to vote for Gloria La Riva. First, I wanted to encourage the party she represents. It is supremely important - in a Democracy - that we support those groups which rise to champion our beliefs on the national stage. If I cast my vote for some other party, Gloria La Riva and The Party for Socialism and Liberation would never know that I support them. They would never know that I am grateful for their efforts and wish them to continue doing the hard work of carrying my hopes and aspirations into the public limelight.
Second, I want it on the record! I want the state to recognize, even if only by a meaningless act of bureaucracy, that the options I have been presented with by this system do not represent me; that I, and those sharing my beliefs, have been marginalized by a system that drawls on endlessly about “democracy” and “freedom,” but falls short when presenting us with meaningful options.
For these reasons I stood in that voting booth looking at my ballot, wondering how to fill it out. The Presidential and Vice Presidential seats were presented to me as a unified ticket. In other words, if I wanted to vote Obama for President, I had no choice but to vote Biden for VP. The two distinct offices were represented by a single choice: “Obama / Biden.” The problem for my write-in candidates was that I couldn’t possibly fit both of their names into the empty write-in block provided on the ballot.
Unsure how to proceed, I finished filling out the rest of my choices and I approached the man supervising the tallying machine. I began to say, “I think I need a new ballot. I’m trying to write-in my choice for presidential candidate.” He interrupted me.
“You can’t write-in a Presidential choice. You have to pick from what’s listed.”
I stared at him with what must have been a supremely dumbfounded expression. After a long silence I reeled in my hanging jaw and managed to squeeze out a sarcastic, “Democracy, huh?”
He started to fumble out an excuse: “Well, if your candidates really wanted to be on the ticket then they needed to register with the state in advance. They’ve had all this time to register…”
“And that would cost them several thousands of dollars per state they registered in, right?” I fired this comment angrily toward the lanky, unsympathetic man before me.
He shrugged his shoulders and I told him I needed a few minutes to decide what I was going to do.
I had read up on Michigan’s election procedures in the days approaching November 4th, anticipating that there would be some oddities voting off-ticket. In retrospect, I’m sure I read something, somewhere that told me I couldn’t write-in candidates who weren’t pre-registered with the state. I must have just filtered it out in disbelief. I suppose I couldn’t accept - until confronted with it face to face - that my state and my nation would deny me the right of making my own voice heard until or unless they’d collected a pound of flesh from a specific candidate.
Dumbfounded as ever I stood there leaned against the wall as other voters passed happily by turning in their ballots; gleefully participating in Democracy. What was I going to do? I could, of course, just request a new ballot and only vote for the other positions and proposals that I had intended to. Or I could take a moment and choose a President from one of those “lesser of two evils” I’ve heard so much about. But there was another option wrestling with these seemingly more sensible choices deep inside my head: Don’t vote.
Here I stood, disenfranchised by a system that only allows the people to exercise any real authority over the make up and function of their government once every two years. They hadn’t allowed me to vote for the candidate I wanted. They had removed me of the option to separate my Presidential choice from my Vice Presidential choice. And as a supporter of run-off voting, campaign finance reform, and “none of the above” ballot options, I had walked in to this voting precinct carrying a ten-pound bag full of reasons to find this whole process illegitimate from the get-go.
It took me a good couple of minutes to settle on a choice and my heart pounded fast and heavy in my chest as I did. But in the end I summoned myself against the fear and intimidation I felt from these smugly self assured state-pollsters and turned again to the lanky man who placed himself between me and democracy. And before the line of waiting voters, loudly and clearly I spoke.
“I think I’ve decided not to participate in a system that doesn’t want to hear what I have to say.”
And I tore my ballot in half.
If you can believe it, the lanky man, along with another voting official, rushed to my sides, grabbed me by each arm, and attempted to restrain me from tearing up the smaller voter-registration form that is submitted with the ballot. I managed nonetheless to destroy it; my captors being quite elderly gentlemen.
These men who had volunteered their time in order to enable the functions of a democratic state, actually tried to physically deny me even of the right to protest my own disenfranchisement. In the process of attempting to cast my vote I was technically assaulted by election officials.
I didn’t report these crimes as I have no desire to see two elderly volunteers, who were simply flustered and unsure of what to do, brought before charges for the failures of Michigan’s Oakland County election organizers, who did not properly instruct or prepare them.
Nonetheless, I truly feel violated. Before November 4th 2008 I couldn’t have imagined that this would be my voting experience. I couldn’t have dreamed that I would count myself among those who have been meaningfully removed of their rights to vote, and to vote for whom they wish. In the land of the free and the home of the brave I find that I have been denied my liberty by an institution too timid to let sound my voice.
Here’s hoping your voting experience did not mimic mine.