The first time I tried to vote, I stood in line in an elementary school hallway in Michigan. One class of kids had clearly been given an assignment to draw their favorite food, and I had a lot of time to study their Crayola stylings on the wall as the line inched forward over the course of several hours. Every last kid had drawn pizza. Behind me, someone said, “When I get done voting, I’m going to eat a whole pizza.” At the front of the line, a poll worker told me that I was in the wrong place. They gave me a new address, which was off the side of the highway and too far to walk to. I tracked down a friend with a car and we drove to the new place, which turned out to be a trailer park. It also had a line. This time, the walls of the polling station were decorated with a history of mobile home innovation that ended triumphantly with the invention of the modern manufactured home, which was no longer mobile. When we got to the front, the poll workers looked at us like we were crazy. They said we had to go back to the first polling site.
Back at the elementary school, the line was at least shorter this time. The poll workers shrugged and gave me a phone number to call. The number was busy. I hung up and called it again. Still busy. I did this for a long time. Finally, the poll workers gave me a provisional ballot that they said would be counted if my registration checked out.
At the time, this felt like a victory. Years later, when I told this story to a friend who was an experienced political organizer, she shook her head. “Oh, honey,” she said. “They did not count your vote.”
I thought about this story recently while talking with Beth Alleman, a nursing student who coordinates student voter outreach for the student government at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The first time Alleman voted, she was an undergraduate in her home state of Illinois. She’d been told—probably inaccurately—that registering to vote at a new location could jeopardize her health insurance, since she was still on her parents’ health-care plan. So on Election Day she took two different trains back to her home district, got someone to pick her up at the station and drive her to her polling place, voted, then drove back and took another two trains to return to Chicago.