High anxiety in voting booth

September 10, 2004|By Kathy Stevenson

ONE THING I pride myself on, as I navigate the rocky shoals of midlife, is that so far I have avoided the many anxiety disorders that pop up in the news every day. Sometimes I wish I could pin my failings on an anxiety disorder, but in all honesty, I know my bad traits are just that - I can't blame them on anything chemical, genetic or hormonal.

Finally, though, I may be able to claim an anxiety that is truly caused by an outside force beyond my control. I'll call it Voter Anxiety Disorder, or VAD.

Latent symptoms of VAD first surfaced during the last presidential election. I had feelings of mild paranoia (was my ballot counted properly?), helplessness (it doesn't matter anyway) and anger toward others (conspiracy theory). I managed to get through that traumatizing time and move on with my life, political and otherwise.

Now comes another election, with its new idiot-proof voting mechanisms, and I find that all those feelings have resurfaced. I am suffering from a debilitating form of VAD. I am terrified that I will not be able to figure out how to cast my ballot.

I suppose I always have had a minor form of VAD. There is something about the solemnity of voting, coupled with that curtained booth that reminds me of a confessional, that makes me sweat. I feel guilty that I did something wrong, such as punching all the holes in the wrong place, when all logic tells me I didn't. I feel that same culpability when a police cruiser pulls up next to me even though I am a law-abiding citizen.

In my voting precinct, I've heard there will be a new voting system, one that requires (excuse me, I meant "encourages") me to vote for all items on the ballot. If I decide not to vote for one of the judgeships, my ballot will be tagged as an "undervote." I have visions of flashing red lights and alarms. I am not a Luddite, but part of me doesn't trust the new scanners and other advanced new ballot technology. Part of me wishes we could use No. 2 pencils, mark our choices on paper ballots and have the nice gray-haired election judges count the ballots by hand while sipping tea.

I picture myself unknowingly making an error on my ballot, handing it to an election official, having my ballot rejected and then having to stand there while all the officials shake their heads in dismay. I can't take this kind of pressure.

Of course, I realize that I, as an informed and responsible U.S. citizen, should be intimately familiar with all items on the ballot. But I'm not, and I won't ever be, so I'll probably just end up marking some entries just for the sake of making sure everything is marked.

I try to put things in perspective. I think to myself, "I am a college-educated woman with a bachelor's in political science. If I'm not informed about all the ballot choices, and I have a major case of VAD, then what about voters who are even less prepared? Do they just give up?"

I won't shirk my duty as a citizen. I have voted in every election since I was 18. But when I enter my polling place in November, it will be with sweaty palms and a sense of impending doom.

Kathy Stevenson is the author of The Lake Poet. She lives in Haverford, Pa.

Columnist Steve Chapman is on vacation.

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