You open the envelope you received in the mail. You read the instructions that tell you how to vote. You unfold the ballot and tear off the stub, exactly as instructed.

You’ve known since the beginning how you’re going to vote, at least for partisan offices. You plan to follow party lines because you believe you’ve no other choice. The other party, you’re convinced, represents everything foul and unholy. They revel in contradiction. They mislead at every chance. They lie to anyone who’ll listen.

You review the list of candidates that you’re supporting. The truth is, you feel little excitement about any of them. In many cases, they’re only slightly less corrupt, slightly less dishonest, slightly less disinterested in their constituents than the opponents you want to oust.

You wish there were alternatives—viable candidates who could win elections but who’ve not been bought and sold by oil companies and insurance companies and the big pharmaceuticals. But such individuals rarely come to the forefront, let alone win political races, so you settle for the lesser of evils, at least that’s how you’ve got it figured. Few politicians, you believe, leave the arena without blood on their fingers.

Still, you wish it were not so. Despite the pompous punditry and the banal bickering, part of you carries hope for a different future, an unreasonable yearning that one day credible and ethical individuals will emerge. But in times such as these, you can no longer believe in fairytales. You can only accept the hard truths that stare back at you from this plain and lifeless ballot.

You mark the boxes next to your candidates’ names, careful not to go outside the lines, not to make errors that could cancel your vote. No hanging chads, you tell yourself, not even a metaphorical abstraction.

You cast your vote on all the partisan races and then move onto the local, nonpartisan ones. For many of them, you have no idea how to vote, so you use as your guide the pamphlet you received in the mail around the same time you received your ballot. You use it too to study the resolutions and propositions passed down from the state and local governments and garnered by a self-interested population. Although you’ve personally vetted these issues in the weeks leading up to the election, the pamphlet helps to solidify your decisions.

You complete the ballot and review your entries, as though checking the answers on a quiz for which you weren’t prepared. You ensure that for each congressional seat you’ve marked the correct candidate. For the presidential election as well, along with any other races you deem important.

You consider one last time the possibility of voting for someone you believe in, someone who shares your concerns, whose integrity you trust. But you know what happens when voters splinter away from party lines and follow their ideals. You’ve seen elections lost. You’ve seen futures tumble. It’s too much to risk, you think, despite your reservations, despite your beliefs and desire to follow your heart.

You let out an audible sigh, long and deep. You didn’t mean to do this. In fact, you didn’t realize you were making a sound until your breath was all but expired. You fold the ballot and insert it into the envelope and seal it. The glue tastes bitter, makes you feel slightly nauseous. Then you insert that envelope into the larger one and seal that as well. You sign the back and place a stamp on the front, in the position designated for postage.

Tomorrow, on your way to work, you’ll drop the ballot into the mail. You’ll know at least you’ve performed your civic duty. You’ll be confident that you’ve done everything in your power to ensure the most favorable outcome, given the limited options available. You’ll even believe you’ve done what’s best for the country, though best is hardly what you’d call the people you voted for.

You’ll go to work and you’ll put in more hours than what you’ll be paid for and take on more responsibilities than what you agreed to. You’ll wish you had the cash you needed to meet the higher utility bills and grocery bills and medical bills. You’ll hope that nothing will happen to prevent you from working because you know you and your family will never make it without this job. So you’ll take on more hours and carry more responsibilities. Yet even though you do, you’re not sure they’ll be enough to survive. You’re not even sure what it means anymore to survive.

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