The poll worker started to hand me my ballot this morning, but then she looked down at her records and pulled it right out of my hands. “I’m sorry, but I can’t find you in the rolls. Are you sure you’re registered?”
I wasn’t nervous yet.
“Of course, Mary” I said, handing her back my driver’s license. “I voted right here in the primaries. You were two chairs over then. Remember?”
She shrugged, body language telling me she obviously can’t remember one voter out of hundreds from months ago.
As she double checked, my mind raced back to the last time I had stepped foot inside my Michigan township hall. The folding tables now littered with the accoutrements of democracy had groaned then with potluck and steam trays.
The church ladies all showed up the weekend before Labor Day to memorialize my dad with three-bean salad, chicken casserole, and heavenly hash.
I was a wreck.
No appetite. Pasted-on smile. I picked at my styrofoam plate, waved goodbye to extended family, and drove to the church to collect flowers and my dad’s ashes. Didn’t know how I’d make it through the next few days.
Mary, who lives just a few houses down the street, brought me back to the present. “I’m sorry, but you’re definitely not registered to vote.”
My face must have shown my shock.
A young woman in chic business wear glided over. “I’ll just check it on the computer in the office,” she said, smoothing my ID out of Mary’s hand and walking back into a room I know is a kitchen. It holds giant coffee percolators like your grandparents might have owned in the 1960s.
Mary ran after the polling supervisor, whispering.
They were gone much longer than I thought reasonable, and my anxiety mounted to anger. I’m one of the few Democrats in this village. I’m the ONLY Democrat I know about. The reason I thought Mary would remember me from the primaries is that she had to hunt down a Democratic ballot for me.
“What the hell is going on?” I thought to myself. “Somebody must have pulled a dirty trick!”
Then the supervisor slipped back out of the kitchen, professional and soothing. “It’s all right, sir; I’ve taken care of it. You can vote. Thanks for showing up today.”
I raised one eyebrow, a skill I’ve been working on since I was a snotty 16 year old. “But I don’t understand. I know I was registered. I voted in the primaries. How can …”
“It’s OK, sir,” she soothed. “Michigan allows same-day registration, so I’ve re-registered you. You can take your ballot now.”
“Mary?” I asked looking over to where my neighbor had sat back down.
She opened her mouth, closed it firmly shut, then sighed and spoke. “Jim, it was your dad. You guys have exactly the same name and address. That’s why I started to hand you a ballot. But when he passed? Somebody struck you from the rolls instead of him. It was just a mistake.”
A gay, Bernie Sanders progressive in Trump country
How a radical progressive like me came to live in rural Republican Michigan is a boring story, so I won’t tell it, but caring for my terminally ill father plays a role. In 2016, I was still living in Detroit, where a friend and I chose to spend Election Night in a bar on the Wayne State campus, sure we’d be celebrating Clinton’s victory with fellow liberals.
Trump’s elevation to power shocked me. Shook me. Changed me. It didn’t happen overnight. My friend, a naturalized citizen who’s lived in strong-man autocracies and fragile democracies, tried to warn me. “Things are going to get really bad,” he said. “Then they’re going to get worse. Gay people like you and brown people like me have the most to lose. You’d better start making plans. Think you can get an Irish passport?”
I scoffed and scolded my friend, lecturing him that horrible night on the stability of American democracy. What a fool I was.
Trumpism ate at my soul
I’ve seen things in the last four years I thought I could never happen again in the US:
- I’ve watched white supremacists and explicit racists march openly in the streets, praised and supported by the president and his party’s power structure.
- I’ve watched foes of racism and fascism vilified and demonized as un-American terrorists.
- I’ve watched open homophobia and transphobia normalized and made socially acceptable.
- I’ve watched civil rights divisions in the federal government act on Orwellian re-tasking to deny civil rights to LGBTQ people.
- I’ve watched officers of the United States turn away brown asylum seekers illegally and treat them like animals.
- I’ve watched officers of the United States rip children from the arms of parents, with close to 600 children fated to probably never see their parents again — because nobody bothered to keep records.
- I’ve watched the president mock simple precautions against a deadly pandemic, effectively encouraging his followers not to wear masks or socially distance even though we know for certain such measures could save hundreds of thousands of lives.
- I’ve watched the president’s followers accept his lies with unquestioning loyalty. I’ve watched my neighbors do it.
- I’ve watched the president and his political party work to subvert democracy by making voting difficult, by suing in court to have ballots thrown away, and by suing to stop ballots from being counted.
- I’ve watched genuine if flawed liberal democracy begin to rot on the vine.
Will marginalized people ever feel safe again?
My immigrant friend and I will not be watching returns together tonight. He’s moved across the country. We’ve each voted. We’re each holding our breath. We’re each frightened but clinging to optimism.
One advantage he holds over me, however, is multiple passports. He’s already let me know he’s not kidding: if Trump wins today’s election, he’s gone. He’d rather take his chances elsewhere than risk his brown skin and “suspect” ethnic origin in Trump’s America.
I don’t have that choice. My American passport is the only one I’m entitled to. If Trump wins again, I won’t feel safe, but I’ll have to tough it out and keep my head down.
Will any marginalized people feel safe? In four years, Trump has unleashed white supremacy, racism, xenophobia, and anti-LGBTQ, anti-woman nonsense, transforming the United States into a no-go zone for members of minorities.
I almost didn’t get to vote this morning
The only reason a clerical error did not disenfranchise me is that Michigan voters passed Proposition 3 in the 2018 midterm elections, allowing election-day registration. That seems like a no-brainer idea. Why shouldn’t we empower as many voters as possible?
But Trump and his people fought Prop 3 tooth and nail. It passed on a surge of progressive voter engagement many say was part of a popular revolt against the president.
So, here I sit, typing away in my rural Michigan kitchen in the middle of Trump country, and I grind my teeth. I did not cast my dead father’s ballot. I succeeded in casting my own, but I fear that may not be enough.
Maybe by this time tomorrow, I’ll know if I’m fated to become even more of a stranger in a strange land. I pray healing can begin instead.
James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to email@example.com.