I. My first time voting was during the US presidential election of 2000. I was five.
Mrs. Z had placed the giant easel pad in the front of the room, so we knew some serious learning was about to go down. A thick meticulous line divided the surface in two halves. At the top were written two sequences of letters that I can only assume read “Bush” and “Gore.” Having experienced less than two months of formal education, I was aware of neither current events nor spelling simple words.
The teacher’s aide had us line up on the side of the classroom. One by one, she handed us a thick black marker to make a line under one of the meaningless letter combinations.
Waiting in line, I felt an inexplicable sense of anxiety. Under which side should I put my arbitrary mark of approval? What if I chose wrong?
I finally reached the front of the line and the thick, toxic-smelling permanent marker was passed to me. Peer pressure had not yet warped our young minds; the tallies were evenly distributed between the two sections. I took a deep breath before carefully placing a perfectly vertical line amongst other such marks.
I wish I could say I remembered which name I voted for. I wish I remembered which side had won. I wish I could claim that a random sample group of twenty kindergarteners had successfully predicted the outcome of the election. But the truth was, I had no idea what I was doing at all, and I was glad that it was over.
II. My second time voting was during the Belgian federal election of 2014. I was eighteen.
Identical packets with copious postage stamps had arrived in the mail from the Circonscription Electorale du Brabant Wallon. They were absentee ballots. I quickly cracked a joke about how they should have a Wine and Cheese party, then made myself scarce to avoid the repercussions of saying aloud such a stupid pun.
I went upstairs and opened the package. After delicately removing the contents of the envelope, I discovered why it had seemed so heavy. The ballot itself stretched nearly my entire armspan, listing sixteen different political parties and all their candidates, accompanied by an equally-long booklet explaining the system. I had entered a strange realm where bipartisanship had no meaning. Under which acronym should I put my arbitrary mark of approval? What if I chose wrong?
My dad directed me to the Belgium webpage describing the political system. I learned that voting is a mandatory civil obligation from age eighteen onward, even for dual citizens and permanent residents in other countries. The pressure was on.
I spent a couple of hours peering into the nooks and crannies of the Belgian governmental system, but I was aware of neither current events nor basic French political terminology. I couldn’t choose one of the many meaningless letter combinations.
Finally my dad asked, “Did you take a look at the candidates?”
I hesitated. “Kind of.”
“Do you want me to vote for you?”
I nodded eagerly.
I certainly wasn’t the decisive, informed voter that Wallonia wanted. But the truth was, I had no idea what I was doing at all, and I was glad that it was over.