Election day in the other America

The gray-faced couple clutching Tea Party literature offered their driver’s licenses to be scanned and their names popped up in the ePollbook. Duly noted, I handed them their ballots.

They had stood in line for a long time because the turnout in this rural Michigan precinct was huge. Their shabby coats didn’t look all that warm, and getting here on this chilly morning had clearly required some effort. The woman grasped her husband’s arm as they shuffled to the booths.

My fellow Americans. I saw a wide range of people in my long day of working the election–all classes, races, and ages—but the numbers belonged to white people who bore signs of struggle. They were the ones I noticed as I played my part in the frantic but relatively well-oiled machinery of Milton Township’s election process. I noticed the poor, the grossly obese, the tired farmers, the harried parents who brought their kids because they had to, not because they wanted to teach them about democracy.

Despite or because of their struggles, these neighbors of mine were determined to have their say. They didn’t complain about the long lines. Instead, there were approving murmurs about the large turnout. In this township I could guess that meant the numbers would go opposite to my votes all the way down the ballot. That turned out to be true. But I also knew that this precinct’s results might not reflect the overall results in the nation or even the state.

I didn’t know how that was going. In the drafty firehouse we election workers were cut off from all communication about partisan politics or results. The township clerk did tell us, around midnight as we were retabulating ballots to try to account for a discrepancy between the numbers of votes and voters, that Michigan had gone to Obama. “Then why are we even doing this?” one of my Republican coworkers mumbled.

The missing voter was found—in the paper applications though not on the computer—at around 2 am. I drove home, turned on the TV, and caught the end of President Obama’s acceptance speech. I was so amazed and relieved that I poured myself an unaccustomed drink of whiskey (from a neglected bottle at the back of the cupboard, the only alcohol in the house), then another, because I was alone and had nobody to celebrate with except the cat, who seemed indifferent.  This was a big mistake. I proceeded to get mightily sick.

Even now my relief is tempered by the sadness, fear, and determination on my neighbors’ faces. They had their say but in the end it didn’t count for all that much. Unless their lives improve—and what are the chances of that happening anytime soon?—the fear and anger won’t go away. The divisions between my neighbors and me will deepen.

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