The lesser of two evils

A short story for American voters

It was a curious election cycle in Midland Springs, a prosperous American town where, for three years, residents had regretted their decision to elect community positions every year the same way they elected their nation’s president every four years. It had felt like “a vote for democracy itself,” some had said, to expand voter reach and decide together who was best suited to fill every tax-funded position, and the measure had passed easily. But the clumsy two-party elections weren’t working the way people had hoped, and most voters were anxious to repeal the measure as soon as they could.

Until then, Midlandians were left to make the best of it, voting for one candidate or the other in a series of monthly elections. They voted for city council in February, emergency responders in April, and librarians in June. In the August election, Hank Peterson, a popular art teacher at Midland Elementary, lost his bid for re-election after complaining about the way Makenzie Trubold assembled his Taco Supreme at a drive-up window. Ms. Trubold, a popular student at Midland High, had taken the complaint personally and dismantled Peterson’s election using social media. (He has since learned to make his own tacos supreme.)

Midland Springs was big enough and American enough for a national-brand big-box retail store, but still small enough that elections like Peterson’s were often decided by just a few votes. Low-profile positions, like public utility clerks and community pool cleaners, often went to any candidate who could persuade a group of friends to vote — an increasingly common problem as voter turnout dropped with every passing month. Democracy, it seemed, was more fun in theory than it was in practice, and many elections went unnoticed.

Democracy, it seemed, was more fun in theory than it was in practice.

But one contest, in late 2016, attracted plenty of attention. Midland Middle School’s bus driver, Ernie Mills, had retired, opening the ballot to two new candidates: Hannah Cartwright, a stern, unapproachable woman with plenty of bus-driving experience, and Dudley Trip, a well-known, but not well-liked, businessman.

Bus driver elections typically got fewer votes than the mayoral race, of course, but more attention than one might guess: buses were filled with children whose parents cared a lot whether the person driving 54 kids to school each morning had what it would take to bring all 54 kids back that afternoon, alive, unharmed, and in time for piano practice.

Cartwright was certainly qualified for the position, having spent her entire career in transportation. She had driven buses, yes, but also analyzed traffic patterns, carpool systems, traffic signal timing, and pedestrian crossings in major metropolitan areas. But her reputation was spoiled by persistent rumors that she had only succeeded by cheating. She had disabled the GPS device on her bus, preferring to record data using her own system, and then conveniently misplaced its archives. There was even evidence, some claimed, that her traffic policies lead to the deaths of four men in New Jersey. She dodged media scrutiny as well as any bus driver could, and after Midland’s city attorney closed his investigation without filing charges, she had dismissed the questions entirely.

Her opponent, Dudley Trip, had a reputation as a shrewd, successful businessman. Nobody, he liked to say, knew more about buses than he did, though he admitted he had never driven anything larger than an SUV. As often as he could, he talked about his garage full of carefully polished sports cars, luxury sedans, and light trucks, but he never let anyone stand too close or look under the hood. Those who had driven with him said Trip was a surprisingly poor driver, prone to road rage and toll violations, to which he replied with a lawsuit claiming defamation. (He couldn’t deny the wrecking yard was littered with his old vehicles, but the crashes, Trip assured voters, had never been his fault. The system was rigged.)

Trip didn’t seem to like many people, and he certainly did not like Cartwright. She was corrupt, he said. She would use the school bus to make money for herself. The traffic in a nearby town was like a parking lot. The worst. Hadn’t Cartwright had three decades to fix it? Shameful. Could voters be sure Cartwright hadn’t caused the traffic in the first place? And if she was such a good bus driver, why had her husband so often been seen in the back seat of Uber cars?

The negativity was contagious. Neighborhoods, friendships and families had been divided by the bus driver rhetoric, and by the evening of the debate, the entire city was on edge.

“Mr. Trip, voters are eager to hear your ideas,” the moderator began. “How would you work with drivers from other schools to improve congestion around bus stops?”

“Hannah Cartwright is crooked,” Trip panned. “The bus stop, if it doesn’t, is rigged. It’s rigged at the, let me tell you, troubled schools with a bus, a bus driver like this, her husband, we are in trouble, trust me, and I think we all know who.”

The audience cheered. The moderator looked back at his notes to see if he had asked the wrong question.

“Dudley!” Cartwright shouted, startling the moderator and, it seemed, herself. She paused, trying to smile the way a female bus driver is expected to smile, but the pressure of the campaign was too much at last. “YOU DO NOT KNOW HOW TO DRIVE A BUS,” she yelled slowly. Her eye twitched.

“Such a nasty woman,” Trip sniffed.

The debate was a wakeup call for voters in Midland Springs. Cartwright wasn’t wrong — Trip didn’t know the first thing about driving a bus. Would they really choose to send their children to school with him? But they couldn’t really vote for Cartwright, could they? Not after what had happened to those poor men in New Jersey. And if even a fraction of the things Trip said about her were true, it would be too much.

Voters felt stuck.

The next morning, opinion pieces in local newspapers blasted both candidates and demanded an end to the two-party system. Independent candidates appeared as if from nowhere. Only one of them had ever been inside a bus, it was true, but none of them were Trip, and none of them were Cartwright, and that seemed good enough for some.

“You can’t force me to vote for either of those crooks,” said one voter.

“They’re both dumpster fires,” her friend agreed.

“You know who I want to drive my daughter to school?” asked a third. “I like this guy Ewan McMarvin! He’s amazing! I mean, he goes to my church, and he’s just amazing.”

“Does he know his way around a school bus?” asked the first.

Her friend hesitated. “He’s spent some time at the bus station, I think. And a national newspaper mentioned him this morning!”

There was an awkward pause.

“I mean, he shares my values,” continued the woman wearing a McMarvin 2016 shirt. “And anyway, voting your conscience is never a wasted vote.”

The first woman nodded politely, her conscience apparently contemplating the idea of her son on a bus driven by a man who shared her values and had “Bus Driving for Dummies” propped on his lap.

The following Tuesday, the bus driver election in Midland Springs set new records for voter turnout. Ewan McMarvin won his neighborhood by a narrow margin, which delighted his boss at Car Phone Warehouse but had no impact on the overall result. Independent voters claimed a historic victory, celebrating the “unmistakable message” they sent to the two-party system. And then, along with everyone else, independent voters watched their children file in behind a new bus driver waving from the front seat Monday morning.

Three days later, when the Midland Middle School bus missed a turn and crashed into the lobby of a bankrupt casino, no one was surprised: It had been rigged all along.