If while standing in line tomorrow at the polls, your palms get sweaty, your heart pounds, you feel that your legs are going to buckle, your vision blurs, butterflies take flight in your stomach, or your muscles stiffen and you want to run, you are not alone.
Fear of voting affects a large number of people, according to Jerilyn Ross, author of “Triumph Over Fear: A Book of Help and Hope for People with Anxiety, Panic Attacks, and Phobias” (Bantam, 1994). It’s not the decision of which lever to pull that is the culprit, but the fear of public places, waiting in line, signing your name in public or feeling trapped.
With 30 percent of voting-age Americans never exercising their right and about 50 percent not voting regularly, according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, it could be fear – not apathy – that keeps people away from the polls.
“The main feeling behind all phobias is a feeling that you are trapped,” says Ross, a social worker and president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. A phobic person will not only feel trapped in the voting booth, but also in line.
Men and women of all ages who fear voting may suffer from an anxiety disorder, “approximately 23 million Americans, 13 percent of the population,” according to “Triump Over Fear.” “Anxiety disorders can include panic disorder; phobias, such as agoraphobia; obsessive-compulsive disorder; and post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Ross.
“Phobic persons become master manipulators,” says Ross. “They know how to avoid situations that provoke anxiety. But voting is one they can’t control.”
There is a real dilemma, she says. Phobic people who feel a responsibility to vote – and don’t – feel ashamed. “They frequently make excuses, ‘I forgot to register,’ or ‘I was home sick,’ or even say they voted when they didn’t.’
One agoraphobic woman, after voting for the first time, couldn’t remember whom she voted for. But she did recall, “My palms were sweaty. It was like going into a lion’s cage. I felt I had to do it but get out before he bit me.”
Silver Springs, Md., photographer Stuart Pohost admits that voting causes him tremendous anxiety, so much so that therapist Ross once accompanied him to the polls as part of his treatment.
“The thing that bothered me about voting was not voting per se, not making the decision,” says Pohost. “The problem was waiting in line, which is a commitment, feeling trapped waiting in line, and feeling like I couldn’t leave the line if I wanted to.”
“When I finally got to the voting booth, I was so full of tension, anxiety and fear that it was very hard to see clearly and to vote. All I could think about was flying out of there real fast,” says Pohost. “Even though the whole process took no longer than 10 or 15 minutes, it was extremely uncomfortable.”
Pohost also admits that the fear of voting can be overwhelming. “It was the same anxiety I felt when going in for major surgery. I’m standing in line at the polls in a perfectly safe place feeling like I’m not safe at all, like I’m going to die, or pass out, or lose control.”