I like the whole ritual of voting. I get attached to "my" polling place, whether it's a school, a firehouse or, as when I lived in Fort Lauderdale, the International Swimming Hall of Fame. (You may have your own idea about what patriotism smells like — maybe a barbecue on the Fourth of July, or even napalm in the morning — but for me it'll always be the scent of chlorine.)
I like the cheery efficiency of the poll workers. I like chatting with neighbors I know and trying to place the ones I don't. I even dig the stickers.
But these days, what I like most about polling places is what they don't have. There's no cable news, so no fire-breathing partisans. There's no e-mail, so no latest burp from Nate Silver, no links to the craziest political ad yet, no ALL CAPS ALERT TO THE IMPENDING DOOM SHOULD YOU VOTE DEMOCRATIC — not to be confused with the ALL CAPS ALERT TO THE IMPENDING DOOM SHOULD YOU VOTE REPUBLICAN.
Yes, it's come to this: The only place to get away from the screaming about this all-important vote is in the actual voting booth.
I tried not to fall in step with the whole pre-election drumbeat — the endless polls, the prognosticators, the dueling rallies on the Mall, the utter noise of it all.
But if you're at all interested in politics it's nearly impossible: You follow a couple of websites that you think are info- rather than rant-driven, but then they'll link you to other, less-upstanding outposts. Maybe you think you'll just click on them once, maybe they're appalling, and thus irresistible, and in any event they tend to introduce you to yet another must-read blogger or gotta-see YouTube and, well, you get the picture.
Suddenly you've fallen helplessly like Alice in Wonderland into the rabbit hole that passes for political discourse these days. Mad Hatters and tea parties and all sorts of other delicious drinks that make you very, very small.
Down there, people can't just disagree, they have to draw blood. Everyone is utterly certain of whatever he's saying and who he's supporting and everyone else is either Hitler reincarnate, or a nut job, or a socialist or a raper of the Constitution.
Really? No one is simply misinformed? Or views the world in a different way? Or, heaven forbid, might have a legitimate point?
As someone who isn't even sure on any given day whether I've worn the right shoes for my pants, I'm continually amazed: Who are these people who are just so certain of everything?
They are not me, apparently, anymore than Christine O'Donnell is me.
On Tuesday night, I went to a precinct in Baltimore County that I'd come across in 2008 when I was looking for something that could be a swing district. In Maryland, it's pretty hard to find one place where voters are split pretty evenly, given that Democrats tend to cluster in Baltimore City and the Washington suburbs and Republicans tend to gather in pockets elsewhere.
But in Carney's Precinct 11-16, voters split almost evenly between George Bush and John Kerry in 2004, with Bush winning by 12 votes. The results were similar for the 2006 gubernatorial election, with the Republican Bob Ehrlich getting 320 votes to the Democrat Martin O'Malley's 303. The last presidential election was more decisive, as it was nationwide: Barack Obama got 672 votes to John McCain's 416.
It seemed as good a place as any to tap into what actual voters were thinking.
Unlike what tends to dominate on TV or online, the voters I met had nuanced and thoughtful observations. I met a registered Republican who voted Democratic this year, Obama voters both conflicted but willing to give him more time, tea partiers who wanted change — but not necessarily up and down the ticket.
Mostly, though, I heard people with real fears about the future, who were tired of the squabbling and ready for real action.
"I honestly am disappointed with all the parties," Andrea Taylor, 58, said with a sigh. "It's clear they're all just politicking. My main concern is the unwillingness of the parties to work together. They need to remember why they got into politics and that they should be productive."
Michelle Gunn, 32, also worries that the election will fail to produce actual results. "I used to believe in the separation of powers. If I voted for a Democratic president, I would vote for a Republican in the House," she said. "But I don't do that anymore. Nothing gets done."
Should Republicans take over the House or Senate, she said, "they'll just argue with the president for two years and nothing will get done."
It's depressing, I agreed with her, but at least at Precinct 11-16 we were talking about politics and no one was shouting.