:: Article

Ten Elections: A History in Polls

By Linda Mannheim.

My mother used to take me with her when she went to vote, past the pamphleteers on 173rd street and the cardboard signs tied to a chain link fence that read: No electioneering between this point and the polls.  The polling place was my school: voting machines filled the ground floor of PS 173 on election day, grey green metal booths with heavy curtains across them. It was an old school building and an ad hoc cafeteria with folding tables and benches usually occupied the entrance hall, so that when you entered the school, you smelled ketchup, hot dogs that had been boiled too long, the ammonia that the janitors used to mop the floors after lunch was over.

On election day in New York, there were no classes, which was one of the reasons my mother brought me with her to the poll. But there must have been a civic lesson she wanted to give me too, because she always asked the poll workers, who were always girthy grey-haired ladies, “Can I bring her in?” And the girthy grey-haired ladies, who took names and checked addresses on the sheets in front of them, always responded warily, “Make sure she doesn’t touch anything.”

So in I’d go with my mother, her skirt swishing as she walked inside, the curtain swishing shut once we were inside. I’d be barely breathing, watching the wall of levers, looking at the candidate’s names. And my mother would find the levers she wanted and push each one down. And then she’d reach for the big red handle at the bottom of the booth, pull it to the left, and all the levers would go back to where they’d been. She’d open the curtain. The girthy grey-haired ladies would ask, “Are you done?” They’d come in and check that it had all been done right. And my mother, with her cropped hair and her handbag and full skirt, would stand, waiting to be dismissed. And once she knew her vote was logged, we’d go.

I wonder what my mother felt when she went in to vote. She had come to America as a child refugee with her parents, eleven years old, old enough to be aware of what was happening in Germany in the 1930s, to understand why she and her parents had to go. She’d watch her parents ruminate about going to one country, then another, trying to work out which countries might allow them in.  Until, finally, astonishingly, they were able to get visas to come to the US. She never spoke about the emotional impact of that transition, about what it had been like to escape from a place where she and her family no longer had civil rights, and come to a place where she could suddenly take part in the every day activities that the enfranchised enjoy.  Neither she nor my father—who was also a refugee from Germany—ever spoke of America as the promised land. They saw it as a place rife with racism, stunted by corruption, showing a kind of shiny potential that it failed to live up to.

And yet, I remember them digging into those elections like it was an all you can eat meal—campaigning for the local politicians they liked, slipping flyers under doors, going to the Democratic club on the cusp of Harlem and Washington Heights. Would those local politicians help you? Yes, they would. They’d listen to your problems, let you know you they cared about their constituents, get their staff to call the electricity company when you couldn’t pay the bill on time and the lights had gone out.  Would anyone elected to a higher office earn your respect? Maybe. A little. There’d be the odd good member of congress or decent senator who’d speak up for what was right, stand up for those who weren’t privileged, fight the good fight.

The US electoral system, my parents seemed to believe, was fucked up and flawed, but also better to engage with than not. It could even deliver, on occasion, what it promised to: proper representation.

And that, if I am honest, is my view too. I don’t think elections are a bright shiny thing that you see yourself in. I also don’t think they’re a room full of funhouse mirrors or a horror show. When I think of elections and the potential for change they offer, I think: It’s complicated.

*

The first presidential election I experienced as an adult was in 1980. Well, I was almost an adult, not quite old enough to vote, up in Vermont with a man who was a lot older than me. He did bong hits first thing in the morning, packed a little pipe while he was painting abstracts, and smoked joints when he drove into town. Everything he owned smelled like weed, but he didn’t drink. The night of the elections though, he drank beer.  There was no TV—a group of us gathered around the radio, like a bunch of depression era Okies. When the news came in that Reagan was going to be president, a shock wave went through the room. Reagan? President? Of the United States? The party broke up, and Mr Bong and I retreated to his bedroom where his dirty laundry and his paperback books lay in random piles. We got under the sleeping bag that he used as a duvet, and I said again and again that I couldn’t believe Reagan had actually won the election. “I feel terrible,” he confirmed. Then: “Why do people drink alcohol? I feel awful.”

Elections were bullshit I decided.

If you were a nihilistic teenager, it was easy to find support for this view. There were even stickers on the bumpers of the random, mud-spattered cars trekking through the melting snow in the New England spring: Don’t vote. It only encourages them.

*

In January of 1988, I was in Nicaragua, in Estelí, a pro-Sandinista city. Ostensibly, I was there for an intensive Spanish course, but of course you don’t go to a country at war to learn a language. Estelí was battle-bruised, with bullet holes in the sides of the rough cement buildings, potholed roads, open sewers in the street. There were shortages of food, of toilet paper, of medical supplies. Everyone had stories about  the violence that marked the final years of the Somoza dictatorship and the relatives and friends they lost to that violence. The earliest days of the Sandinista revolution seemed a reprieve, a time of relative peace even as the country lay in ruins, but violence spread again as the US provided arms, training, and money to the Contras in the civil war. Reagan is going, the revolution is continuing, read the banner at our language school. We even had a party to celebrate.

In the afternoons, during the political/cultural programme, we heard about Nicaragua’s 1984 elections, which were judged to be fair and free by international observers from Canada, Ireland, and everyone except for the Reagan administration.

“The 1984 elections represent a major departure in Nicaragua’s political history,” noted a report by the Latin American Studies Association:

The Nicaraguan people effectively have had no democratic tradition. In fact, the country had a tradition of non-democratic, militarized politics with rampant human rights violations. While the Nicaraguan people have long desired democratic rule, for most of them the 1984 electoral process was their first experience with participatory democracy.

And thus did my view of elections change forever.  Nicaragua, a country of three million, in the midst of the  Contra war, under a US embargo that meant constant shortages and empty supermarket shelves, was far from paradise. But those stories about ending the dictatorship that had come before… I’d gone to Nicaragua to get my head around the revolution. I was surprised how moved I was by stories of first time voters, by accounts of the 1984 elections after years of corruption, violence, and dictatorship.

There’s an accusation that has stayed with me from that time. I can’t even remember precisely who said it, only that it address the attitudes Americans had towards voting while Nicaragua kept getting pushed back from any degree of stability by US-engineered embattlement and embargo: You think it doesn’t matter whether you have a Republican or a Democrat in office. To us it’s the difference between whether we can get medical supplies from the United States or have to get them from halfway round the world.

*

I couldn’t quite believe the polling set-up in rural New England when I saw it for the first time—pulling up in the snow, shuffling into the town hall in my sopping boots. When I gave my name, I was handed a paper ballot and directed to a standing desk shielded by (what looked to me) like wraparound divider. Where were the big green grey voting booths?  I filled out my ballot, folded it, and then, just like someone in an old movie, dropped my ballot into a slot at the top of my box.

And in a film, this is where the montage would be:

The 1990 elections in Nicaragua that brought the UNO government to power: The UNO was an anti-Sandinista coalition, an alliance of centre right politicians utterly unprepared to govern; no one, including them, thought they would win the election. When I returned to Nicaragua following the elections, I heard comments like: “The Sandinistas promised rice and beans and dignity, but they could only deliver the dignity.” And, when a friend and I spoke to a man who looked old but was not old, we talked about the years of war, and my friend said, yes, but the war is over now. And the man who looked old but was not old gazed into the distance and answered, “We’re fighting the war of hunger now.”

The 1994 elections in South Africa, the first democratic elections there: Remember those images of long queues in the dusty townships and former homelands, the queues going on and on, kilometres back, the black South Africans waiting to vote for the first time, waiting for that moment when they are treated like citizens? Those images followed me, floated near my consciousness when I went to South Africa a few years later, arrived close enough to the moment of democratization so that, back then, it still had a glow.

And the day I finally I get to vote in New York: It’s 1997, a year after I’ve moved back to the city. New York’s poll hours extend longer than any others I’ve seen in the US and I wake up early to get to the polling place just after the 7:00 am opening so I can get to work on time. There’s a school, decorated with signs prohibiting “electioneering between this point and the polls.”  There’s also a crowd outside, and there shouldn’t be. A pudgy guy is standing by the door, trying to reason with people. He explains that there’s been a problem with the delivery of the polling machines. They won’t arrive until later.  He sympathises with the explosion of outrage, of street corner shouting. “I agree with you,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It makes me sick. It’s disgusting.”

During the presidential elections in 2000, as luck would have it, I was living in Miami, used the infamous voting machines that required you to slip a cardboard ballot into a metal template and punch holes next to the candidates’ names. The metal template and the candidates’ names in the metal holder didn’t always line up correctly; I sometimes counted lines to make sure I was marking the correct candidate. I had no trouble at all understanding how, in Florida, a slew of ballots could be marked incorrectly.  I was on a train from Miami to Virginia a few weeks after the election and wound up in the dining car across from a corpulent middle-aged man in a priest’s collar. He kept laughing about how upset the Democrats were now that Bush was going to be president. He kept repeating the tired claim that Democrats were too dumb to vote for the candidate they wanted. I got up and left.  In September 2001, less than a year later, as the National Guard appeared in airports around America and the military began its invasion of Afghanistan, I was one of the many people who kept replaying those elections in my mind, who kept wondering what the world would have looked like if Florida had had different voting machines.

In 2016 I am at a Democrats Aboard party in a Berlin nightclub. On the stage, there’s a screen showing CNN’s coverage of the presidential elections. In front of the stage, there’s a row of press photographers sitting on the floor, photographing us—Americans—as we watch the returns coming in, photographing us as we watch each state called for Trump.  The week before, I’d been trying to imagine this very thing happening, trying to imagine it as if imagining it could ward off its terribleness, but the magic hasn’t worked. The photographers are clicking away, capturing our devastation.

*

It’s hard to know how to write about elections. If I tell you that they matter to me, that every time an election rolls around in the US, I vote by absentee ballot, I know you might think of me as naïve, a shiny-faced campaigner running around some green-lawned neighbourhood with candidate’s buttons on. If I tell you that I know how often elections are fucked up and flawed and insufficient, you might think that I’m dismissing them.  But I’m not, and I have no patience for the simplistic equations of people who dismiss the power and wide-reaching ramifications of elections.

Do I need to say that voting isn’t enough on its own? Do I have to qualify my claims by adding that of course you’re going to have to do more than get out to the polls to bring about change? Should I tell you about the acquaintance I briefly connected with before the 2016 US elections? We’d been political buddies of a sort when we were both students. He thought both major political parties in the US were corrupt and indistinguishable from one another. He kept trying to persuade people to vote for a third party candidate for president or just sit the elections out. I’m sure he succeeded in some cases. Do I need to repeat the by now oft-repeated insight about how those who suffer least under a brutal government (like him) are good at urging complacency?

You want to start with a government that at least gives you breathing space, at least gives you room to protest, propose more, live your daily life without fighting.

*

In the early 1970s, in New York City schools, we were taught about America’s Civil Rights Movement and the fight for universal enfranchisement as if it were ancient history: the literacy tests that black Americans were subjected to in order to vote, the white officials who lied about the date or time or place where elections would be to keep black people from voting. We watched films of the Selma to Montgomery March, where voting rights activists were beaten, tear-gassed, brutalised by the cops trying to stop them.  And the teachers who taught us these things did not think of themselves as progressive. The scariest disciplinarian, who everyone thought should retire already, delivered these lessons too. It was part of the curriculum. And only later did it dawn on me that we were studying events that had taken place less than a decade earlier. The Voting Rights Act was passed in the summer of 1965.

*

I am writing this days before another election in the United States, a mid-term election that is essentially a plebiscite on Trump, on the far right. If the election does result in a Democratic majority in Congress, then the United States might be able to take the first step back from an increasingly violent and authoritarian trajectory. But I no longer know what to expect from the elections.

In Georgia, Republican officials have tried to prevent more than 50,000 voter registration applications from being approved—seventy percent of them from African-Americans—through an “exact match” law. In North Dakota, voters are required to show identification that includes their street address, even though thousands of Native Americans live in reservations with no street address. In Dodge City, Kansas, 13,000 voters—most of whom are Latino—will only be able to vote at a single polling place located outside city limits and more than a mile from the nearest bus stop.

I keep thinking about that conservative teacher who stood before us, past what should have been her retirement date—even she understood the brutality, the baseness, of voter disenfranchisement like this.

And I keep thinking too about Election 1932: The Last Election, Ella Bergmann-Michel’s short film on the lead up to Germany’s 1932 elections. In it, banners wave in the breeze displaying symbols from three different movements: the Social Democrats’ three arrows, the Communist hammer and sickle, and the Nazi swastika. The camera lingers on half-torn election posters of Hitler, protest marches in the street, angry arguments on the sidewalks. It is a film made up of fragments “Then I had to cancel the recordings for political reasons,” Bergmann-Michel wrote. “It was January 1933.”

The Nazis came to power on 30 January of that year. Within months, they engineered a restructuring of the courts that installed judges loyal to the Nazis, organised Hitler enthusiasts into a militia, and enacted the first of the laws that would deprive citizens of their right to live in Germany: the Revocation of Naturalization and Revocation of German Citizenship of 14 July 1933. Over the next six years, more than 400 decrees and regulations would restrict the lives of German Jews, banning them from employment, education, and voting.  When I asked my mother how her family made the decision to leave, she said simply: “We couldn’t do anything there. My father couldn’t work. I couldn’t go to school.”

I keep think about the other footage that’s easy to find online—the footage of post-War Berlin, the blocks and blocks of ruins.

*

My mother, in the voting booth in New York in the 1960s, draws aside the fabric over the entrance as if it is a cinema curtain. She looks at the girthy, grey-haired poll worker.

“Are you done?” the poll worker asks her.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Linda Mannheim ‘s most recent book is Above Sugar Hill (Influx Press), stories of a one time New York City landmark that became known for its high homicide rate and heroin trade. Eimear McBride wrote that: “Mannheim’s restive tales of her desiccated stretch of New York provoke and abide like a slap.” Linda’s work has appeared in Ambit, Catapult Story, Litro, and Alfred  Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. She is the author of a number of Kindle Singles, most recently “Ghosts,” set in Nicaragua during the Contra War. Why, Why, Why: The Books Podcast, is a podcast that Linda helped found where writers talk about why they wrote the books they wrote, editors talk about why they decided to publish the book, and readers talked about why they picked up a book and read it. Originally from New York, she is based in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 5th, 2018.