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It’s not the least of the paradoxes of the Trump era that this wannabe authoritarian did more than any decent man to lead Americans to assume their civic duties.
Trump’s attacks on the electoral process led 52,000 New Yorkers to sign up for work at the polls, 18,000 more than in 2016. I was one of them. This seemingly tedious task is usually carried out for the most part by senior citizens. But suddenly it became the front lines of the war to save American democracy.
What little feeling of citizenship I have was stirred by the president’s threats to a right I assumed was untouchable. I went online and applied on the website of the Board of Elections.
The New York Board of Elections is by design a political organization, its ten members divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Staff at the Board’s offices is equally political: the personnel are appointed thanks to connections, political and familial. But it doesn’t stop there.
A 2018 New York Times article I found explained that 70 percent of those who apply to work at the polls drop out when they learn they have to attend a four-hour class. I was one of these dropouts until I was notified I could take the class online. Having passed it with flying colors (no great feat, since the answer to each test question appeared at the top of the page) I discovered that my file didn’t show that I had even taken the class. (And it still doesn’t!)
I called the Brooklyn offices three weeks before Election Day and two before early voting and was told by a remarkably pleasant and helpful staff member not to fear: updating was not done automatically but had to be done manually, and they were a few days behind. I had applied to work on several early voting days, when the hours were less onerous: on Election Day you had to work from 5:00 AM until after the polls closed — a seventeen-hour day.
I asked her when I would receive training for that and when I’d be assigned.
The staff member told me point-blank it was unlikely either of those things would happen. Not only are the upper echelons of the Board of Elections political, but so is the opportunity to be a poll worker. She asked if I was a member of the local Democratic Club. I snickered. Did such a thing even exist? Not being a member, I was told, meant working on an early voting day was unlikely, since it’s the local party bosses who pick and assign the poll workers. Early voting being a plum assignment, the slots in my district were already filled. She suggested I call the party to express interest in joining the local club; maybe next time I would be able to get an easier assignment.
Even worse, I was told that not being a club member meant that the deck was stacked against me in general. Assignments to polling places were also in the hands of the clubs, so not being a member made it far from certain that I’d be working in my own neighborhood, much less my regular polling place. I wouldn’t be assigned until political appointees got their assignments, and I could be sent anywhere in Brooklyn. The Times article mentioned a 15 percent absenteeism rate on Election Day, and I now understood it. If I had to travel more than ten blocks, there was little chance I’d appear at a polling place at 5:00 a.m.
Perhaps it was my natural charm, but something led the election board staff member to override the system and assign me to my local polling place as a relief worker. But she added a drop of poison to the gift: political parity, it appeared, had to be maintained, and on my identification card I was designated as a Republican.
What I’d already learned made the misdeeds of the Board of Elections — its purging of a couple hundred thousand voters four years ago, the fiasco of incorrect absentee ballots, the long lines at early voting places this year — all seem natural. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was wrong to describe the situation as “voter suppression” — the Board of Elections isn’t capable of anything so complex. For the first time in years Mayor de Blasio was right; it was all sheer incompetence. And I was now part of it.
And yet, about forty of us having arrived at an elementary school in Brooklyn at 5:00 AM on November 3, everything was set up and ready to go at 6:00 AM. In this neighborhood of single-family private houses, with about 4,000 voters assigned to our polling place, there was never an overwhelming rush, just a steady stream of people. The atmosphere was pleasant. There were a few people voting in Trump t-shirts, with American-flag bandanas as face masks, but I found it touching when a father came with his young son who was waving an American flag.
Early on it was clear that no provocations or scenes were likely. One father told his kids as he went to mark his ballot, “Let’s go have an American experience.” Even knowing that people all over the world vote just as we do, it felt right.
As I checked people in, or explained the voting process to them, I grew to enjoy the symphony of names I was hearing. South Asian names, Greek names, names from Iran, from Lebanon, from Iraq, from Russia, names, both first and last, that fit few people’s notion of what an “American” name is. Most of those with these euphonious names were Orthodox Jews. We discussed the origins and derivations of the names, of the Batshevas and Yeshayahus. I greeted Italians with family names that bore the air of Palermo. Pakistani and Chinese families came to vote together.
I experienced this while working with a young Dagestani woman, and I had a momentary vision of this benighted neighborhood, one buried in obscurantism, as an image of the America Trump and his supporters hate. It is an America where the food eaten is different, where languages other than English are spoken at home, where the color of people’s skin is not always white.
I’ve spent decades living in my neighborhood in the bowels of southern Brooklyn, hating everything about the close-mindedness, provincialism, and racism of those around me. But my neighbors are, despite themselves, in the broadness of their origins, far more representative of the multi-cultural America progressives think they are fighting for than the enclaves of right-thinking in which so many on the left actually live.
These voters are the diversity everyone talks about. They are, despite themselves, cosmopolitans who had become Americans, and they embrace their country of adoption while maintaining close connections to their roots. My Dagestani co-worker, born in New York, admitted to not speaking a word of English until she was five.
But within minutes of the polls’ closing, my unexpected, idealized view of those I had spent the day chatting and joking with evaporated. They were, indeed, Americans, but in the worst sense of the term. If they were cosmopolitans, they were cosmopolitan nativists. When the scanners spit out their tallies, they showed Trump had garnered three times the votes of Biden; in Brooklyn as a whole, the numbers were reversed. Trump, who had once observed there were “good people” among those who chanted “Jews Will Not Replace Us,” had obliterated Biden in our precinct.
There had been signs it would turn out this way during the day. There was the person who asked me how he could vote straight Republican; the voter who informed me that Trump was going to win New York; the man who was disappointed when I told him that though Trump’s name appeared twice on the ballot he could only vote for him once; the West Indian gentleman who, when I showed him how to fill in his ballot using Biden as an example, told me, “I’m not voting for that worthless bastard.”
The idyll between me and my neighbors, and with it, my fantasy about the American Melting Pot, was over. Becoming American involves many things. Among them, I saw, is supporting forms of racism and xenophobia that can also be aimed at oneself.
How is this circle to be squared?
A definitive explanation is, of course, impossible, but some possibilities occurred to me. The people I spent the day helping simply didn’t see themselves as targets of Trump and the nativist forces he represents. If Trump supporters hate people from Iran or Iraq, the voters in my district don’t see themselves as the ones who are hated, but other people — often those from these same countries. If Jews are hated, it’s not they who are hated; it’s liberal Jews like George Soros, who are worthy objects of right-wing hate. If people of color are hated, it’s not they who are hated; it’s other people of color, the ones who blame everything on systemic racism and smash windows.
Trump’s overwhelming success at my polling place carried over to every other race. Republican nonentities running for Congress and state offices — candidates who were eventually crushed — carried my district in a landslide. A hatred of Democrats, a hatred of liberals, and a hatred of everything they represent: the Trump contagion screamed from the scanners reporting out the results.
And that is what haunted me in the hours after I left the polling place. That those people whose company I had, to my surprise, enjoyed, people who laughed at my jokes and helped me parse their names and backgrounds, were bearers of a hatred I had stopped seeing for a day.
It led me to wonder about the definition of “good people.” The people who voted for Trump at my polling place were not obviously evil, but is it possible to be “good” when you countenance and support evil? I felt shame and unease for enjoying the day and my time with these voters. Just as I feel shame and unease at calling myself an American today — a citizen of a country where, after four years of lies, racism, and 230,000 deaths from COVID-19, nearly 70 million people still felt that Donald Trump was not only fit to be president, but the best man to fill that post.
Mitchell Abidor is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator.