My alarm went off early enough to witness daybreak. The fields, still white with frost, begin to shimmer under the warm glow of first light. Unmistakable birdsong rises clearly above it all and floats along on rivers of air. A regular chorus of other hopefuls will join them soon enough. Until then, who could help but smile in sweet relief at winter’s end?

This year the spring equinox arrives a little early, March 19 at 8:50 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time to be precise. By that time our local birds will be fast asleep but eager gardeners are known to lie awake all night in planning. Celestial navigators refer to the vernal equinox as “The First Point of Aries,” and from all accounts around the Key Peninsula, boaters are every bit as apt as gardeners to dream big.

In the meantime, envelopes from Pierce County Elections containing Washington State’s presidential primary ballots have arrived. All registered voters should have received a ballot before now.

While Washington state has conducted presidential primary elections since 1992, only Republicans have chosen delegates this way. For the first time this year, both parties will be using primary results for delegate allocation at their national conventions this summer.

Frustrating to independently minded voters is the requirement that in order to participate in either the Republican or the Democrat primary election, would-be primary voters must declare their party preference as either Democrat or Republican and further declare they will not participate in the nomination of any other party for the 2020 presidential election.

Self-declared Democrats cannot vote Republican, and those who declare themselves Republicans cannot vote Democrat. Ballots without a checkmark in either box will not be counted. The Secretary of State, the Pierce County Auditor and others lobbied for another option, but the Legislature and the political parties instituted rules that prohibit undeclared or unaffiliated voters from voting.

Checking party preference on the ballot envelope allows party participation to be counted without revealing an individual voter’s choice of nominee. (Some Democratic candidates on the ballot have dropped out, and only President Trump appears on the Republican side of the ballot, but voters may still write-in a candidate.) Your party declaration — not your vote — will remain a public record for 60 days and available to party officials, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

Election Day is March 10 and ballots must be dropped in ballot boxes by 8 p.m. or postmarked by Election Day. But your primary vote does not restrict your choice in any future election. Washington state will still have a Top 2 primary Aug. 4, 2020, to determine who will be in the presidential election Nov. 4.

Some voters have wondered on social media and elsewhere about crossing party lines for the day to throw an opponent’s campaign into disarray.

The Washington State Republican Party Chairman Caleb Heimlich said to do so would be dishonest, unethical and illegal, but also counterproductive. If a Republican wants to make her vote count, she should vote for the President, according to Heimlich, to give him momentum and to encourage him to come to Washington for a rally.

Another variable is Super Tuesday, March 3, when 14 states hold primary elections and caucuses and more delegates to the presidential nominating conventions will be won than on any other single day. Surely some voters will want to see those results before making a choice, even if it’s just for the record. Five Democratic candidates have already dropped out of the race since the ballots were printed: Bennet, Booker, Delaney, Patrick and Yang.

Living comfortably within this highly polarized political landscape isn’t easy. It can be awkward. In what has become something of a daily meditation, I try to remind myself that we are all human beings and that underneath all, what we share in common is far greater than what divides us, while our differences make us unique.

For a chance to see this in action, I suggest walking away from your screen of choice and going out into the life we share on the Key Peninsula. We have a growing and thriving community that demonstrates its devotion to work together to accomplish the greater good and make life more livable for everyone. The evidence of compassion, tenacity and genuine strength is all here. Hope surrounds us, but it helps to be on the lookout for it.

My oldest friend takes the long view at 96 years old. She is concerned about the current state of our democracy but still maintains an optimistic outlook.

“Oh, I still have lots of hope,” she said. “I really believe in our young people. They see where we are stuck. I just know they’ll figure things out.”

Editor’s Note: As of Feb. 28, 36,000 ballots out of 679,100 were cast without a party designation and therefore rejected by the Washington Secretary of State’s office. One of these came from the Secretary of State herself, Republican Kim Wyman, who wrote in a Facebook post: “As the state’s chief election officer, I don’t want people to think I am making decisions in the office to help or hurt any political party or candidate. That is why I stay neutral … I knew someone would publicly announce that either I was a Trump supporter, or that I didn’t support him … That would eliminate my neutrality. Now that I have voted, I will get back to being an election official.”

In an interview with King 5 News, Wyman said it is her job to protect voter privacy, including her own.