Columbia resident Armon Wilson had one goal for participating in his first election: be first in line.
“As soon as the polls open, I’m going to be the first one there. I’m not going to wait in line, and I’m going to make my voice heard,” said Wilson, 19.
His mission started three hours before he walked through the front doors of Wilde Lake High School on the first day of early voting Monday morning. And by the time Wilson came out, “I voted” sticker in hand, he was a viral sensation.
Wilson was awake by 4 a.m. Monday to shower, change and begin the 2-mile trek to Wilde Lake High.
By 4:15 a.m., he hit the road, walking the same route he used to take when he attended Wilde Lake High. During the hourlong walk, Wilson didn’t look at his phone once; with broken headphones, he had no choice but to lean into the eerie silence of the morning.
“I was walking in silence, in deep thought, because I still didn’t entirely know who to vote for,” Wilson said.
The anxiety of achieving his goal of being first in line filled his mind with each step he took toward his alma mater, where he graduated from earlier this year. His mind was occupied with the thought of, “I’m going to be late. Someone’s going to beat me.”
For three days before voting, Wilson said he was really fixated on being first.
“I didn’t want to wait in any lines. I wanted to vote right then and there. I didn’t want to wait for Nov. 3. I knew if I was first, I wouldn’t have to wait and I would show everyone else that young people vote,” he said.
As he inched within viewing distance of the school around 5:15 a.m., he squinted to see if anyone had beat him. As he walked up to the cafeteria doors where the large white vote sign was placed, he was ecstatic — he was all alone.
“It felt ominous. Everything was dark, no judges inside, no one in line,” Wilson said. “I was like, ‘Am I in the right place?’ ”
It would be 15 more minutes before anyone would join the line. In the dark silence, Wilson said he picked his last few candidates. As other voters joined the line, he occupied himself by reading a book, playing a match of the online game Among Us, reading two NASA articles and posting on the Snapchat app to push his friends to come vote.
When the doors swung open at 7 a.m., Wilson said he was surprised to be handed a plastic bag with a pen and “I voted” sticker from an election judge as soon as he walked in. He also said he wasn’t expecting the process to be multistep.
“This was my first time ever seeing a polling place, and it was confusing,” he said.
As he took his last steps before voting, Wilson was given the choice of a paper or electronic ballot, giving him flashbacks to his school days where Scantron tests were part of his daily life.
And there, on the same wooden floor where he used to play basketball with his friends, Wilson cast his vote for the first time.
“This is the most important election. When I went to go vote and circle in the bubbles, it felt that way, too. It was a very emotional moment,” Wilson said.
Leading up to Monday, Wilson had frequent conversations with family, including his mom, Lynnette Wilson, 58, a corporate executive with McDonald’s. He also followed social media posts from friends, urging their followers to vote.
Wilson said, however, he wished conversations about voting had been more a part of the social studies curriculum in high school. Wilson said people like him who never went with their parents to vote don’t know what to expect from the process.
“They don’t teach us about voting in school, so it was surprising,” he said. “In the back of my head [I was thinking], this would have been some useful information to learn.”
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He walked out of Wilde Lake High 15 minutes after the doors had first opened. It was still cloudy and gray outside. Wilson was hungry and cold after waiting so long outside, and he walked to the Bagel Bin in Columbia for some breakfast before heading to work at The Mall in Columbia.
Chocolate milk, breakfast bagel sandwiches, muffins, Kit Kats and some tea would hold him over for his workday at Express, a clothing store in the mall.
When he got home after work Monday afternoon, he said he could barely greet his mom before she started showing him Twitter and asking him questions about his first voting experience.
During the day, Lynnette Wilson saw someone post her son’s photo and voting story on Facebook. She beamed with pride describing Wilson, the youngest of seven children, as a determined man.
“We’re so proud because he gets it — we instill that in the household,” Lynette Wilson said. “We take advantage of our right to vote. I’m not telling you who to vote for. I’m telling you to vote because, as African Americans, we weren’t always given the right to vote.”
Armon Wilson said he believes this election will turn his generation into a much more engaged set of voters, himself included.
“I wish the election didn’t have to be this tense, but it’s a good thing it is because it’s going to keep Gen Z really aware,” Wilson said. “My generation, I know it for a fact, isn’t going to pass up a chance. We’re going to be a force in every election after this.”