Like millions of Americans, I voted today. This election marked a personal milestone: my first election - ever - outside of California. I cast my first vote ever in 1972 in Los Angeles, and I have never missed so much as a school board election in California in those 36 years.
Until today, when I cast my vote in Virginia. It was a very odd feeling.
Registering to vote in Virginia was something of a challenge because all of my identity papers have my California address, so I could not register to vote via the web or with one of the many sidewalk volunteers registering people in Charlottesville.
So with one day to spare before the Oct. 6 registration deadline, I went to the Albermarle County Elections Department and filled out a document, under penalty of perjury, swearing I was now a legal resident of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
A few days later I got a voter card in the mail, and it said my polling place was “CATEC.” Where? I wasn’t sure, but I figured a sample ballot would soon follow with those details.
I figured wrong. They don’t send sample ballots here, nor do they send absentee applications. When I asked long-time residents about when I’d get my sample ballot, they shrugged with that look that says “Oh, he is from California isn’t he?”
Meanwhile, living in a swing state is like living in a parallel universe. The campaign for my vote included John McCain promising me he will improve my health care coverage while Barack Obama promised he will protect my gun rights. Obama’s ad even featured a guy in a hunting vest holding up his gun.
Election Day dawned this morning, and I was still not sure where to vote. Where or what was CATEC? I went to a Virginia Dept. of Elections website that promised to tell me the location of my polling place. When I typed in my address, it came back with “Polling Place not found.”
So I got in my car and drove to the first building that looked like a polling place: A school with lots of people streaming in. Schools are supposed to be closed for Election Day here, so that seemed like a good sign.
When I drove into the parking lot, there were hundreds of campaign signs on the lawn. My first thought was anyone trying this in California near a polling place would be immediately arrested. By the way, all of the signs for all of the candidates are blue in this state; maybe the subliminal message was supposed to be that the Republicans aren’t really Reds or something?
After braving the gauntlet of campaign signs, I saw that I had indeed found a polling place. There was a little sign by the door saying as much.
I went inside and a woman with a clipboard could see I looked bewildered. I asked if this was my polling place, and showed her my card that said “CATEC.” Yes, indeed, I was in the right place. I was at CATEC, which stands for Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education School.
I got to the polling place early – polls opened in Virginia at 6 am, and I was there by 6:30 am, but the lines were already hundreds deep. The polling workers were very efficient, checking me in, handing me a card to stand in another line. I stood with a middle-aged African American woman who said it was the first time she had ever voted.
I was eventually ushered into a voting booth with an electronic panel and given a quick lesson on the operating procedures. No lengthy ballot here. There were three offices to vote upon: President, U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. That was it. No local races, no props.
The names of the political parties were printed on the electronic ballot panel in large bold letters while the names of the candidates underneath were in small, barely readable type. Partisan voting is alive and well here, I guess. I pushed the buttons, lighting up green next to each of my candidates, then hit the send button. I was out of there by 7 a.m.
I had voted for the first time in an alien land. And it felt great.