By Tom Bissell
Today I voted in the United States, in an actual polling station, for the first time since 2000. I’d voted in 2004 and 2008, but during both elections I was living outside the U.S., so I had to vote via absentee ballot, which feels about as politically satisfying as taking the S.A.T.
That said, I highly recommend the experience of watching Election Day in America unfold from abroad. If nothing else, it reminds you that reality is neither American nor in English, and that, no matter what happens, there’s a giant, interesting planet out there filled with billions of people who hardly understand and could not care less about American partisan politics.
During the 2004 election I was living in Ho Chi Minh City (née Saigon), Vietnam. After John Kerry conceded (this was in the middle of the afternoon of the next day in Vietnam, of course) I headed over to the nearest bar to run my political disappointment through a carwash of Tiger Beer. The young bartender congratulated me on my president retaining his office. I told the young bartender that I hadn’t voted for the president and had been dearly hoping that his challenger would unseat him.
“So,” he said, curious now, “you are unhappy with the result?” Very much so, I told him. “Oh,” he said. “Maybe next time, then?” Yeah, I said. Maybe next time. He nodded, but I knew what he was thinking. Never in his life had this young man been able to feel happy or disappointed or even interested in the politics of Vietnam, whose Communist Party retains its authoritarian stranglehold on most aspects of life. While I wasn’t ecstatic to contemplate another four years of George W. Bush, I’d been able to have my own small say in sending him back to that ranch of his in Crawford, Texas. That wasn’t nothing. And in the eyes of my bartender it was unimaginable.
We all roll out the “thank God for democracy” stuff every election season, but when you’re living in an actual police state, and feeling sorry for yourself because an election in your homeland didn’t break your way, you’re powerfully reminded what an incredible luxury it is to live in a free country. Believe me, after your third Tiger Beer, you’ll probably be toasting to George W. Bush’s health.
Even when you believe it, though--and I very much believe it--calling out “Yay for democracy!” can feel lame and Hallmarky, especially when that sentiment is being undercut by the ultraviolet intensity of nonstop campaign ads. Now, I don’t have cable, so I do all my television watching through my good old television-commercial-free Xbox 360. I don’t have a car, so I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t have a landline, so no robocalls reach me. In other words, I have zero involuntary exposure to the contemporary American political attack ad. All the attack ads I do watch I watch by choice on sites like Talking Points Memo or Politico.
Because I’ve lived in eight cities and four countries over the last 10 years, I’m registered to vote in rural Michigan, where I grew up, and so decided to use the election as a chance to come home, see my folks, and vote. What that meant was being in a house in which the television cycled through the same viciously partisan local and national campaign commercials. That meant the telephone ringing 10 times an hour, literally, with campaign calls and robocalls and pollsters and money-wanters.
After three days of this, I understood why, whenever I called my father and mother or anyone else back home, they all seemed inordinately angry about the election, because now I, too, was inordinately angry about the election. Politicians whose faces and names previously triggered an indulgent, weary sigh now made me want to pick up my television and throw it out the living room window. We are already a hot-tempered people, we Americans, and during election season we’ve effectively been conditioned to poke an animal with a long, sharp stick until someone gets hurt. The crazy thing is that, in this scenario, we’re simultaneously the animal, the someone, and the stick.
According to the Supreme Court, money is speech. If we cared to take the personification of money an extra step, into straight up anthropomorphism, I’d say that this past election proves that money is a manipulative liar and jerk that no civilized person would ever want standing in her living room.
That’s how I felt this morning, at least, when I woke up at (as my former Marine father calls it) zero dark thirty to drive to my local polling station. I headed down lonely Highway M-35, along Lake Michigan, past tiny private roads hung with hard-carved wooden signs that said things like “Million Dollar View” and “The Breakers,” looking up at a low ceiling of cloud, out of which beamed faint pink and yellow planks of morning light. I turned on the radio, heard three seconds of an attack ad I’d already heard, oh, 200 times, and turned it off. Even though the ad backed a candidate for whom I intended to vote, I by now thoroughly disliked this candidate.
My polling station: Ford River Township Hall. Blink and you’ll miss it. Next-door is the Ford River Fire Department. The parking lot was about 90 percent pick-up truck, and I could hear country music coming out of at least two of them. Delta County, Michigan, is prototypically Reagan Democrat country: socially conservative but not at all compelled by the demonization of the welfare state. Needless to say, its citizens’ votes tend to careen at some fairly unpredictable angles. The first sign I saw: “Have your picture I.D. ready.” I wasn’t aware that Michigan had passed voter ID laws, but it had, and, as voter ID laws go, it was fairly unobtrusive. My identity established, my name crossed off the registered voter list by a nice old woman with yellow highlighter, I went, finally, to vote.
No machines, at least not until the very end. And no booths. First I had to remove my ballot from its secrecy sleeve--yes, that’s what it’s called--and sit down at a long wooden table. Between me and my fellow voters were a bunch of privacy-ensuring cardboard partitions that had been made by schoolchildren. They were emblazoned with stuff like “Patriotism!” and “Liberty! Land of the Free!” and “Freedom to Believe What We Want!” which was my favorite, because the kid who made it ran out of room for “Want” and kind of had to run the word up the side of the partition in a way that looked both terrible and adorable. The kids took their time with these partitions. Glitter was used. I kind of had to remind myself I was voting for the Leader of the Free World.
I fed my completed ballot into the Diebold machine, noting its faintly unsettling name, and walked out feeling . . . what? I don’t know, really. Democracy as a practice can be a little absurd, when you think about it. Messy and inefficient and sinisterly vulnerable to manipulation both sneaky and overt. Driving home, NPR was alight with early-voting horror stories and irregularities in Florida and Ohio, many of them clearly resulting from untoward partisan shenanigans. I turned the radio off. There’d be plenty to be upset about later, I feared, no matter how today’s vote goes down, and for now I wanted to honor those partition-designing children who, maybe not naively, believe in a better democracy than the one we probably have.