I purposely picked what I thought would be the worst possible time: Early morning, after the early risers had backed up the system and just as the people heading to 9-5 jobs would back it up further. I wanted to see just how tough voting in what may be the highest-turnout election in U.S. history -- and clearly the most important in the history of the world -- would be.
Yes, I told myself, by way of preparation, there would be long lines. Yes, there would be dirty tricks -- rascally attempts to deprive people on their most basic democratic right. Yes, it would be a sacrifice made in defense of liberty. I was ready for anything and everything.
I arrived at my polling place, Mendota Elementary School, at 7:48 a.m. I noticed driving up that cars were parked on adjacent streets for up to two blocks away and people were walking to and from the school. I got a spot right in front of the school. It was a spot many a citizen could not have taken, but I have a small car and excellent parallel-parking skills.
The hallway was crammed with people, outside the gymnasium where the voting was taking place, all the way back to the front entrance, maybe 200 feet away. This really was the worst possible time. Yes!
There were people walking up and down the aisle with placards, containing alphabetical lists of street names in the two wards that voted at this site: Ward 22 and Ward 23. The names for Ward 22 ranged from Badeau to W. Sauthoff Rd.; for Ward 23, it was Barby Lane to Vera Court.
"The line's going to move faster now," said one of the bearers of the placards. The reason: The voters were being separated into two separate lines for the different wards. "When you get to the door, it's going to split up."
I looked around me. The people in line looked like my north-side neighborhood -- young, old, black, white. The hallway was jammed. I asked a young girl who was helping people find their way into the right line if it had been this busy all morning. She wasn't sure, since she had been inside the gym most of the time. But, she added, "I got here at 6 and there were people waiting outside the doors."
By the time I got into the gym it was 7:56 and the line behind me was only about half as long as when I arrived. Just inside the entrance there was a handwritten sign affixed to a yardstick stuck into a traffic cone: "Voting line begins here." It was at this point that the throng divided into two lines, one for each ward, their wraparound routes marked with other foot-high traffic cones, in an array of colors: orange, red, blue, black and yellow. I tried to imagine why anyone would want foot-high traffic cones. Big Wheel races?
"What number do you think we'll be?" the man ahead of me in line asked his companion, presumably his wife. "I bet we'll be at least in the 400s. Usually we're about 10."
The guy behind me was looking at his watch uncomfortably. He mentioned to the person next to him, his neighbor, that he had to be somewhere at 8:30. It was now 8:04. Would he be able to vote in time? I butted in: "Otherwise, you'd come back later, right?" He thought so.
As I waited in line, a few people who knew me came by to talk. A former city official groused about Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen's presumption in sending assistants to the polls as monitors. "Under what authority?" he demanded. Another neighbor, something of an intellectual, remarked to me that the Republicans seemed to be taking its cues in this campaign from Joe Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist: "They lie." We had a nice talk.
At 8:17, the lines for both wards no longer trailed into the hallway. The man who had to be somewhere at 8:30 said he now really wanted to stick it out. Hearing this, I let him slip in front of me in line, proclaiming that I was doing my part for the democratic process.
A few minutes later, I was at the table. As usual, it took a long time for the poll workers to find my name. That's because the strongest urge in human nature is neither to love nor to hate -- it's to transpose the first two vowels in my name. I always say it painfully slowly.
"L [one one-thousand, two one-thousand} U, [three one-thousand, four one-thousand], E [five one-thousand, six one-thousand..."
The response is always the same. "L E U?"
But no one asked me to prove who I was by producing a photo ID. No one was looking over the poll workers' shoulders insisting that I not be allowed to vote because I obviously misspelled my own name. J.B. Van Hollen and his minions were nowhere in site.
Presently I was given a slip of paper containing the number 156. I traded this in for a ballot, marked it at one of the stations, and turned it in. I was voter Number 279 on the day. I bought a bagful of chocolate chip cookies from an enormous row of tables heaped with baked goods, and walked outside.
The time was 8:24. Voting at the busiest time of day had taken 36 minutes. If I hadn't bought the cookies, it would have taken 35.
This is what thousands of people in Madison -- and millions around the nation -- voted by absentee ballot ahead of time or waited in line for hours at city clerk's offices to avoid. This was the harsh sacrifice demanded of those foolish enough to wait until Election Day to vote.
As I left, I drove onto Northport Avenue to head back to Sherman. City work crews were for some odd reason flushing fire hydrants into the street, impeding traffic. If it was an attempt at voter suppression, it was not terribly smart. Note for the future: Create obstacles on the way to the polls, not on the way back.
Further on I saw another blatant but belated attempt to influence the election's outcome. The sign at one of the gas stations I passed said $2.39. Nice try, I thought.