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Reading Through the Midterms: Finding Bipartisanship with Books on the Front Lines of Democracy

Kristopher Jansma on Working the Polls and Making Friends

At 4:31 in the morning, today, Election Day, November 8th, I dashed out of my house with a thermos of hot coffee in one hand and a 678-page Patricia Highsmith biography in the other so that I could be at Town Hall by 5 am to open my polling station by 6 am. (I stopped to take a photo of the eclipse, which I had forgotten was happening.)

I’m still here, and I will be until the polls close at 9 pm, helping voters in my district to cast their ballots, only getting home around 10, after we’ve packed up all the machines and sent the final vote tallies on to the Board of Elections.

It’s going to be a very long day, which is why I brought a very long book.

For the past two years, I have worked as a county Election Inspector. I am specially trained to operate what’s known as the “Plan B” voting machines, officially the Sequoia/Dominion ImageCast, which since 2008 have been available at every county polling location to allow differently-abled voters to independently cast their ballots (though assistance is also allowed on the other machines if that is preferred by the voter).

The Plan B machine includes an audio hook-up for voters with impaired vision, as well as a “sip-and-puff” attachment and a set of foot pedals for voters with restricted use of their upper body.

It is a marvelous machine, which I am proud to operate, though I am also aware that its display shows that the lifetime total votes cast on the machine is, as of this morning: 11.

Today, hundreds of midterm voters in my district will come to Town Hall, where I have been assigned. Indeed, projections are that there will be a record-breaking number of ballots cast. However, because of the specialized nature of the Plan B machine, it is unlikely that I will assist a single voter in using this machine today. This is my third time serving as Election Inspector and so far, not one person has come to use it.

Hence the 678-page Patricia Highsmith biography I’m towing along.

There is another reason for the very long book, and why in each of the three elections I’ve worked so far, I have ended up reading all day and having long conversations about literature.

By law, each voting machine, including the Plan B, must be monitored by two Election Inspectors, one from each major political party. This means that for all seventeen hours today that I will wait for someone to come and use the machine, I will also be making small talk with a Republican.

I don’t believe that literature will heal our partisan divide, or that it can solve very many of our real-world problems. But I do believe that it continually reminds us that people are never quite as simple as we think.

Generally, we Election Inspectors avoid talking about politics. We, like the voters coming in, are not allowed to wear any political or campaign paraphernalia that could unduly influence others. Still, politics is clearly on all our minds.

By tomorrow the future of our county, state, and country will be irrevocably affected. I’ll be either elated or crushed, and my GOP Election Inspector counterpart will either be elated or crushed. Quite possibly we’ll both privately check our phones all day for early vote totals or exit poll data. But we do not discuss this. We have seventeen long hours to get through. We’re not going to start off with coffee and a lively roundtable on abortion rights and gun control laws.

What we do talk about then, are books. Prepared for a long day full of boring stretches, most election inspectors here today have brought something to read.

*

The first election I worked was the 2020 General. I signed up at the urging of my wife, who requested I do anything but spend the day pacing the halls at the prospect of four more years of Trump. My grandmother, who had been a poll worker for many years, was not going to be able to do her shift down in New Jersey that year because of COVID, and so I took the chance to fill in for her, karmically-speaking.

So instead of panic-vomiting, I set out to combat voter suppression and stand up to the people intimidating voters at the polls. After donating, knocking on doors, and making phone calls, the last best thing I could do would be to ensure that, at least in my small corner of the world, there was an orderly and lawful election.

Even if, in my paranoid imagination, I envisioned myself having to work all day next to a Proud Boy.

Instead, I found myself coordinating with an elderly Republican woman who I’ll call Mabel, in a red V-neck sweater with white hair and thick reading glasses. As soon as Mabel and I finished setting up the Plan B machine, she sat down with her Kindle and began to read.

Fortunately, I had brought along my copy of H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.

When I took it out, Mabel excitedly began telling me how she’d loved it, had connected to Macdonald’s grief at the loss of her father. Soon she and I were deep into a conversation about family members we’d lost and—I was so absorbed that I barely noticed it was 6 am. The polls were about to open.

Once again, I’d steeled myself to spend the day with an anti-vaxx, insurrectionist cartoon.

Mabel and I watched, smiling, as the first voter of the day walked up to one of the other machines. A small elderly nun, who had been waiting quietly and patiently in the hallway since we’d arrived. She voted, and with a loud “thunk” the machine registered her ballot. Everyone cheered.

The nun then turned to us and proudly held out her rosary.

“THIS is my vaccine!” she shouted, and then she wandered out.

The rest of us sat in silence for a moment. Politics had abruptly reentered the room in an unexpectedly ridiculous way.

“Good luck with that I guess,” Mabel barked, and we laughed in relief.

Working with Mabel all day ended up being the reminder I’d sorely needed that the Republican voters in my community were not quite the caricatures I’d sketched in my mind after days of doomscrolling. Mabel’s politics certainly weren’t mine. Deep down I even believed that her vote would truly harm those I loved and push our country into a decline it might never come back from.

But sitting there talking to her about hawks and death and King Arthur, I had to recognize that she probably felt something similarly strong about my vote. Perhaps in my own way I was shattering some stereotypical notion she had of a liberal voter based on FoxNews and the Dan Bongino Show, both bookmarked on her phone, I noticed, when she showed me photos of her grandchildren.

At some point I asked Mabel what she was reading on her Kindle.

“It’s called The Murderbot Diaries.”

I think I managed to say, “Excuse me?”

“By Martha Wells. This is the third one in the series. There’s five so far. I just read them over and over.”

Mabel described the plot, which involved exploration on alien planets and a hacked cyborg security agent who loves watching soap operas and dislikes the humans it is supposed to be protecting. Needless to say, it was not quite what I’d assumed Mabel would be into.

For this primary our entire location’s collective turnout would end up being 39 votes. Total. Spread across seventeen hours.

Still, by the end of the day as we packed up the Plan B machine together, still sitting at its lifetime total of 11 votes cast, Mabel had finished re-reading through book five, and was gearing up to start over with the first volume. On my phone, the news was already breaking that Trump was projected to win Florida, and the panic I’d fought off all day was beginning to rise. I wouldn’t sleep all night, I was at least glad to have passed the day in the company of Mabel and her Murderbot.

*

The following summer I was called back to a new assignment in a nearby town for a local Democratic primary. This time there was only a single contest on the ballot, and only registered members of one party could vote in it. Back in November there’d been huge turnout, and Mabel and I had both gotten lots of chances to help the other poll workers when things had gotten busy.

For this primary our entire location’s collective turnout would end up being 39 votes. Total. Spread across seventeen hours.

This time I had it in mind to reread all of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which I had first torn through during jury duty, a decade earlier. After getting the Plan B machine set up again, I once again flipped open my book.

My Republican counterpart that day was a man I’ll call Ralph. He ran a company that automated video recording for sporting events. We chatted about the Tokyo Olympics, beginning in a few weeks after a year’s delay. He explained that normally he’d be out there working, but this year had not felt safe going because of COVID, even though he had gotten his two Pfizer shots as soon as he’d been allowed.

Once again, I’d steeled myself to spend the day with an anti-vaxx, insurrectionist cartoon. Instead, I found myself chatting with a cheerful grandfather with a background in artificial intelligence.

When he saw my copy of Cloud Atlas he lit up.

“He’s Irish, right?” Ralph said. “I’ve heard of him.”

I said that Mitchell lived in Ireland but was born in England and had lived in Japan.

“I’m pretty sure he’s Irish,” Ralph said. “Have you ever read Ulysses?”

I stopped myself from saying “Have you read Ulysses?” out loud.

Instead, I replied that I’d once been the founding member of a James Joyce Reading Group, and throughout grad school I’d met up with a friend weekly to read the book out loud while downing Guinness and skimming the annotation to try and figure out what the heck was going on.

Ralph eagerly fished out his phone to show me a podcast, “Re: Joyce” where broadcaster writer Frank Delaney dedicated each five-minute episode to dissecting and exploring a single sentence of Ulysses at a time, starting with the first, “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

I was amazed. I guessed it would take him something like fifty lifetimes to get through it all at that pace.

Ralph got sad and said, “Actually, he died like four years ago.”

I apologized and then, I asked the obvious question. “How far did he get?”

“368 episodes,” Ralph said proudly. “Seven years.”

And soon we were sitting there beginning what turned into a multi-hour listen to Delaney’s lively Irish brogue, tripping gladly along through the streets of Dublin on June 16th, 1904 as we waited and waited for our 39 voters to trickle in.

*

Today for the Midterm Election, I’m stationed back at Town Hall, and partnered up once again with Mabel, who I can tell does not really remember me from two years ago. We’re anticipating that even with high turnout, the record early vote will mean we have a relatively orderly day. As of this moment, I’m a few chapters into the life of Patricia Highsmith, and this year Mabel is reading something called The Demon Hunters Saga on her Kindle.

This morning I’ve learned, reading my long biography, that Highsmith left the United States for good in 1963. She followed in the footsteps of great American writers like James Baldwin and Gertrude Stein who found life in this country intolerable. Still, living for the last thirty years of her life in France and then Switzerland, she never gave up her US citizenship.

Her own politics were, in a word, complicated. Rennie McDougall writes, “If inconsistency was the mark of a believable character, Highsmith practiced this most adamantly in her politics. She was an out (if not necessarily public) queer woman, a supporter of Margaret Thatcher but an opponent of Ronald Reagan, an unapologetic antisemite who wrote angry letters spouting racist remarks and a woman who once read the Bible every morning only to turn around in later life and announce her disbelief in God, blaming religion for most of the world’s ills.” She identified as a social democrat, though friends said she retained much of her Texas conservatism, who voted for Perot in 1992. Today she is remembered by many as a queer, feminist icon with these conflicting sides of her left out or papered over.

I don’t believe that literature will heal our partisan divide, or that it can solve very many of our real-world problems. But I do believe that it continually reminds us that people are never quite as simple as we think, exist as individuals outside of demographics, and that history is longer and more twisted than we can recognize in the patterns of the everyday. Inconsistency is the mark of a believable character, and so it is the mark of our national identity too. I believe in that.

The Plan B machine remains at its lifetime log of 11 votes cast, but we are ready, dedicated to the continuation of the great democratic project. Whether I will pound Alka Seltzer or Prosecco this evening remains to be seen. In the meantime, it is my job to make sure that all the people who want to vote, have voted.

Knowing that Mabel and Ralph and I have kept putting that duty in front of our own politics, at least for these seventeen hours, once or twice a year, still gives me some measure of hope that the larger story is not yet finished being written. That there are people like us in every county in every state, all across the country, still showing up to make this all keep working, a thick book close at hand.

Kristopher Jansma
Kristopher Jansma

Kristopher Jansma is the author of the critically-acclaimed novels, Why We Came to the City (Viking, 2016) and The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, (Viking, 2013). He is the winner of the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award and his story “The Samples” is the winner of a 2021 Pushcart Prize. His work has been translated into GermanFrenchItalianDutch, Polish, Czech, and Turkish. He is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at SUNY New Paltz College. He lives in New York with his wife and children.






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