I turned 18 in February 1973. That birthday held special significance to me for two reasons. One, that I now had to register for the draft. And two, that I had not been 18 in 1972, when 18-year-olds were first given the right to vote in federal elections. At the time, I thought that was incredibly unfair. Why? Because the first presidential election I would be able to vote in would be 1976. Which was the year I would turn 21—the legal voting age before the law lowered it to 18.
Despite that rank unfairness, I have always felt a strong civic duty to vote. And over the years, the biggest challenge hasn’t been figuring out how to cast my vote, but rather where.
For college, I went to a large public university. Voting—and registering—was incredibly easy. There was substantial outreach by all major (and minor) political parties. Voting was a semi-social event. In fact, it was difficult NOT to vote. The polling place was usually in a people-packed place, like the student union, or—if weather cooperated—the outdoor campus quad. Life was sweet.
During law school—and for the first few years of practicing law—I lived in the same apartment. It was in a large—but not huge—apartment complex, which had a vastly underused common area (which led to the washing machines and dryers). That was my polling place. It could not have been more convenient. And if I ever forgot that it was election day, there were numerous signs throughout the complex with directions to the polling place. Voting was very easy; life—again—was sweet. And I really enjoyed getting the little “I voted” sticker. I saw it as a badge of honor.
I then bought a house. It was a nice little house, in a pleasant neighborhood that was close to my law practice. I lived there for 34 years. And during that time I had so many different polling places that I lost count.
Where I lived, they seemed to love having elections. Presidential elections came around every four years. And in between, the governor of my state would run for election, along with other statewide officeholders. And then there were the state assembly and senate races. So, every two years there was a significant election, always in even years. In addition, the county in which I lived had elected supervisors and a sheriff, all of whom had four-year terms, with staggered elections every two years. The population of the county is about 10 million people, so the elections were a big deal.
But it gets more complicated than that. I lived in a city. The city has a population of over 3 million people. Up until 2022, the elections were held in odd years. This included the mayor and other citywide officials (all elected to four-year terms) and staggered elections for city council representatives, also on odd years.
And various initiatives would be in the ballot cycle of the entity (state, county, or city) that they related to. I think that special districts (like water, etc.) and the local school board followed the election cycle of the county.
At least, that’s what I recall. As such, there always seemed to be an election pending somewhere in the near future.
Confusing as all of this can be, what was most disconcerting to me was the frequent change of location of my polling place. For the first few years after buying the house, my polling place was the elementary school around the corner. However, strange things started happening at the school vis-a-vis the location of the polling place. First it was the auditorium, then the cafeteria, and finally the school library. And then it was gone from the school entirely.
Since then, it has been in many places. Sometimes, the polling place is in an apartment complex that seems to have appeared overnight. I will have the new address on my sample ballot, but often the polling place is in a “rec room” located far from the street. Walking through these modern complexes for the first time can be confusing. Other times it was at a senior center located in a park. The place was amply staffed with poll workers who had a habit of laying out more danishes and other baked goods than I had ever seen anywhere. And other times it was in someone’s house—usually in the garage.
And wherever the polling place was, there were always restrictions as to which voting booth to use. On certain elections, particular streets were assigned to certain booths. I must have lived on a very popular street, because I would often have to wait for one of my designated booths to free up while other booths were vacant and available.
In 2018, the state I live in adopted what is known as a jungle primary (i.e., Any registered voter—regardless of party affiliation—can vote for any candidate of any party. The two highest vote-getters face each other in the general election.). Prior to that change, the primary elections had designated election booths for each political party. The area that I lived in was overwhelmingly dominated by one political party. As such, there never seemed to be enough booths designated for the overwhelming majority of residents, while the booths designated to the other party lay dormant.
Throughout all this I kept voting. Since I turned 18, I don’t believe I missed an election, regardless of how obscure the election or the “new” location of the polling place.
I have now moved from my house of 34 years. And I now vote only by mail, and I make sure I mail it before election day. It is very simple to do. Often I think to myself that I will never again go to a polling place to vote. And that makes me sad; I will miss getting the “I voted” sticker.