For me, it’s the stubby pencil on a string, the wobbly plywood screens and the sense, walking out, that you have done something small but important.
For others, it’s the actual act of putting a mark against a name that’s important, of then folding the paper and putting it into a ballot box so old and battered it looks like it fell off a lorry sometime in 1955.
For all of us, though, there should be something very powerful in the act of voting, because it links us directly – through that simple act of marking a paper with a pencil – to our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, all of whom trod the same creaky polling station floorboards in their time as we shall do this week.
But the numbers of us who do take part in this strange ritual, who head out into the cold on polling day for the half-hour or so it takes to vote, are going down all the time.
It is easy to see why. Compared with the hysterical tears, the screams of joy and the instant gratification that result from voting on TV talent shows, real, proper democracy can seem a bit dull. Only one in every three Scots will take the time to vote in this week’s local elections, almost certainly fewer than the number who vote for The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent.
The reasons for such apathy are perfectly valid. Nobody really knows who the candidates are, politicians everywhere now enjoy such a low place in the public’s esteem that most are just treated with contempt, and there is a general feeling that nothing much will change, whoever is elected.
There is also a genuine sense of voter fatigue: in the last 15 years, we have had four Westminster, four Holyrood, three council and three European elections.
But none of these excuses are good enough. Scotland is in the process of choosing its place in the world, whether it wants to remain part of the United Kingdom or forge out on its own as an independent country. That is seismic, momentous and the biggest decision in our history.
Crucially, though, this is not a decision we will make on one day – on 18 October 2014. This is a decision we are all in the process of making over these next two-and-half years.
The council elections are a step along that way. They represent the only real test of political opinion in Scotland ahead of that referendum. As such, they are vital in setting the tone for what comes afterwards and for establishing momentum ahead of that crucial poll.
That is why Allison Hunter, who leads the SNP group in Glasgow, urged voters to use the council elections as a “stepping stone” to independence. A remark, incidentally, which sparked the combative response from Labour’s Gordon Matheson that “no one steps on Glasgow”.
It is also why the SNP has invested so heavily in its marketing effort for these councils. SNP party political broadcasts used to consist of Alex Salmond talking earnestly into the camera for several minutes. Not any more.
The SNP’s local election broadcast is such a slice of slick advertising slushiness that it could easily have been selling holidays, or pensions, or any lifestyle product. It is an expensive piece of broadcasting – and it shows.
Labour managed to entice Doctor Who actor David Tennant to do the voiceover for its election broadcast, but ruined what should have been a chance to inject a little star quality into its campaign by cutting to boring old bald men in suits talking to the camera after only a few seconds.
Both Labour and the SNP need a good and decisive win. For the Nationalists it is partly about keeping last year’s momentum going, but also about establishing itself as Scotland’s true national party.
If the Nationalists can emerge as the largest party in places such as Glasgow (which has endured uninterrupted Labour rule for 32 years), it will really mean that the SNP can fight and win anywhere in Scotland.
It will also mean that the SNP’s success last year was not a one-off, a national swing attributable to a poor Labour campaign and a brilliant Salmond-led one by the SNP. If the Nationalists can achieve consistent widespread local success, it will show everybody in politics that their support goes right down to the grassroots and is not dependent on the vagaries of national campaigns.
For Labour, it is equally – if not more – important that the party starts to show it has begun a fightback. When Labour lost control of the Scottish Executive in 2007, many in the party thought it was a blip and normal service would be resumed in 2011. When that didn’t happen and the party actually went backwards, the realisation sank in that Labour was in decline and couldn’t start to plan to recapture Holyrood again until it had started to win again.
This week’s local elections are vital in that rebuilding process, not just in terms of starting the campaign for the referendum and the next Holyrood elections, but also simply to stop the erosion of confidence which has plagued the party since last year’s defeat.
There are senior figures in the Scottish Labour Party who know that the party was guilty of complacency for many years. It didn’t really build its support bases in west and central Scotland because, under the first-past-the-post system then used in council elections, it didn’t need to.
But when the single transferable vote was introduced in 2007, the opposition parties started to win ground from Labour – and, with councillors on the ground, the other parties found it easier to build the local infrastructure that would help them get more and more councillors.
So when anyone remarks on Thursday that they can’t be bothered to vote, it might be worth reminding them that these are, actually, pretty important elections. They represent not just a step along the way to the referendum but the only real public test of opinion between the 2011 elections and the 2014 referendum.
Indeed, they are far more important, I would suggest, than voting for even the most lachrymose crooner on the telly.