It’s six a.m., and the elementary school gymnasium has come to life.
The hum isn’t from school children. Classes, held in person in Iowa City this fall despite the pandemic, have been canceled for election day; instead, the murmur resonates from my fellow precinct election officials, all of whom sport thin, white hair.
The average age of the poll workers, including me, is 83.
When I introduce myself to my precinct chair, he reaches for a handshake. I offer up an elbow bump instead.
“Ah, right! Elbow bump.” He smiles, maskless. “Got it,” he says.
My team and I set up the sign-in stations — I place a bottle of hand sanitizer at each table and make sure each box of pens is full. By seven, we’re ready for our first voters.
“Good morning! Do you have an Iowa Driver’s License or form of ID with you?”
“Great. Would you mind verifying your address for me?”
“And your name and date of birth?”
“Great! Take a pen there; it’s yours… forever. Because of COVID, we’re not recycling pens. Think of it as a gift from the county! That you already paid for.”
“Take this sheet down to Jim and he’ll give you a ballot in exchange. Don’t forget a sticker!”
In the weeks leading up to the election, my roommate pasted pictures of the presidential candidates all over our apartment. Joe Biden peeked out of our living room window. Donald Trump lingered on the doorway. Kamala Harris looked down upon us as we washed the dishes. These pictures were meant to be funny, but really, they reeked of foreboding. Some of my roommates peeled the photos down, resenting being asked to think of the election at all. Still, new images would crop up and multiply, like an intrepid weed.
At 10 a.m. on Election Day, my friend and I walk to the polls. Moments after we leave the doorway of our house, he spots a massive gingko leaf on the sidewalk. It is the size of my palm. My friend, a lifelong gingko enthusiast, has never seen a leaf so big. It has to be good luck — at least, it should be luck enough to counter the mini presidential candidates that have ominously papered our house.
There’s a shrine in our apartment. It’s a few years old, a remnant of a past tenant of this old off-campus collegiate house. It’s covered in wine bottles, candles, Mardi Gras beads, an empty pack of Pall Malls, incense, an outdated paper star finder, and a thick layer of dust. I place the gingko leaf, already wilting, in the shrine, hoping one of our cats won’t eat it before the shrine can work its magic.
Over the coming days, as the tallies gingerly roll in, I check the leaf. It tears at the stem; Biden is down in Pennsylvania. Its green darkens; Biden is up in Nevada.
Once we learn the victor, we tear down each electoral portrait. We banish from our home the ghosts that occupied its mantles. And the leaf still sits in the shrine.
In the afternoon, Jill Biden visits Mills Park, my old elementary school. Perched amid a throng of supporters in the parking lot, she calls my home state of North Carolina “critical” to Joe Biden’s chances.
It feels strange to see her five minutes from my house, greeting voters in the same place where I waited for the school bus every afternoon ten years ago.
Cary, N.C. is usually pretty quiet — but that changes during election years. According to Wikipedia, my town is “mostly home to swing voters.” When I drove through the neighborhood last week, the proportion of Trump to Biden lawn signs was about 50-50. This divide maps onto the people I grew up with: Many of my mom’s friends generally vote for Republicans, but some of them switched from Trump to Biden this year. And many of them aren’t particularly interested in politics at all.
Yesterday, in an episode of the Radiolab podcast, Jay Leve called these voters “Trader Joe’s Republicans.” They like NPR; they don’t approve of Trump’s antics, but they generally vote Republican in down ballot races. When I mention this concept to my mom, she corrects me: “I think Costco Republicans is a better word,” she says. “Trader Joe’s is too urban!”
As the election approached, I saw article after article about how these suburban swing-state women would decide this year’s outcome. Scott Alexander of the blog Slate Star Codex even mentioned them as he poked fun at the statistician Nate Silver, suggesting that Silver’s model could change when “a simulated soccer mom in Savannah decides that Donald Trump is too coarse and uncivil, sighs softly, and switches her simulated vote for Biden.”
I can’t help but wonder who gave these women so much power.
“Suburban women, will you please like me?” Trump declared at an October rally in Johnstown, Penn. I don’t know much about Johnstown, but I wonder if it’s like Cary. “I saved your damn neighborhood!” he exclaimed.
If there’s one thing my 11-year-old sister and I have in common, it’s a shared love of TikTok. Our For You pages are wildly different, but we manage to find a middle ground to distract ourselves as we wait for election results: the strange world of “Christian TikTok.”
It takes a while to pick a favorite video, but we eventually settle on @maggie.moo.moo’s evangelical-friendly rendition of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP.” “He is king / he is king / Christ is over everything,” pulses the baseline of the new lyrics, replacing the more familiar “there’s some whores in this house.”
Lily eventually talks me into telling her what “WAP” means after we grow tired of anxiously refreshing Google’s electoral college map. She asks me who I think is going to win, and I tell her I don’t know.
Lily scrolls through more of @maggie.moo.moo’s videos as I stress-cook chocolate chip pancakes, and we soon discover the account is anything but a break from politics. In one video, @maggie.moo.moo writes, “you can’t be Christian and pro choice. just a reminder” over a disco-filtered clip of her bobbing her head along to a mashup of 15th Cole’s “Hoopla.” In another, she asks why everyone is “freaking out about COVID-19” instead of “the biggest disease of all: sin.” Apparently, it isn’t an anomaly; Lily tells me a lot of her favorite Christian TikTok accounts had recently gotten “political,” and she’s decided to unfollow many of them.
When I first watch “vote red” videos posted by 15-year-olds at the beginning of election night, my initial instinct is to pity their makers. It’s eerie to see how a corner of this supposedly-superficial app is full of teens plagued by guilt and terrified of Hell. Then I look at the person across the screen from me. My little sister is only 11 (and raised just as conservative), but she’d convinced friends’ parents to donate to Black Lives Matter and had pinned pictures of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to her wall. She even sends me an occasional gay TikTok. Was youth or a conservative upbringing really an adequate excuse?
On Nov. 3, America watched millions of white evangelicals make the same choice they made in 2016. Four years ago, I thought there was still hope that many would change their minds when they saw who Donald Trump really was.
They proved me wrong.
As we close up shop, I’m assigned the task of tallying the write-in votes. There are at least 40 write-ins for various offices. I see the names of my neighbors, high school teachers, and local religious figures scribbled on ballots. Even in the bluest county in the state of Iowa, Donald Trump and Joni Ernst carry the majority of my precinct’s Election Day votes.
On the drive home, my partner greets me with Culver’s. As I scarf down dinner in the passenger seat, I reminisce on the cast of characters I encountered throughout the day: a maskless voter. (In most states, it’s illegal to deny someone the right to vote due to their refusal to mask-up.) A woman sporting a “FOUR MORE YEARS” shirt and red heart-shaped sunglasses. (She herself wasn’t there to vote, but she watched to make sure the young man she brought with her registered with the political party she supported.) My fellow poll workers who enjoyed doing sudoku.
Halfway through the drive, I at last begin to break down. I remember the woman with dementia I signed in, who couldn’t remember her birthday or name, and the older woman who brought a driver’s license that had expired 18 years prior. Lives risked, all in the name of democracy.
The futon has seen too many of my older siblings’ dorm rooms to be taken seriously as a piece of furniture. The padding in the mattress never fully expanded after it emerged from shrinkwrap in September, so a constellation of lumps and bumps spreads across its surface. It creaks. There’s an ominous stain in one corner that we all just ignore.
Still, my roommates and I have been fidgeting on the futon for hours. The sun has set without our notice. Only the glow of CNN on the TV screen lights our small living room, casting the red and blue hues of the “magic wall” across our rapt faces.
We don’t think of ourselves as IOP kids, but that hasn’t stopped us from listening attentively each time John King reports the same set of facts about Maricopa County. A week earlier, Joey and I had mapped out nearly every possible Biden victory on 270towin.com. It was theoretically part of his homework, but as we opened more and more tabs, we both became enraptured with the mystery of the election, its spectacle, its branching possibilities for chaos and hope. This, I realize, must be what it feels like to love a sports team so much that it becomes an essential component of who you are.
It’s nearly 5:30 p.m. when we realize there’s no food in the apartment.
Together we stretch, rub our eyes, and turn off the TV. I grab my keys and we drive to the supermarket.
I love going to Market Basket — I love that it still sells Frozen II-branded string cheese, even though the movie is now nearly a year old; I love that it’s a place where all the different stripes of Somerville seem to gather together on Saturday mornings — but today we move through the aisles with haste, worried we’ll miss a Key Race Alert.
Eventually we settle on a Stouffer’s lasagna, party size. Apparently it features double the meat required by the “lasagna with meat sauce standard.” We drop it in the cart.
In the checkout line, I see one man wearing a red mask, emblazoned with “Make America Great Again.” But he’s outnumbered by three or four others sporting the Patriots logo on their face coverings. If the branding of one’s mask offers insight into one’s identity, it seemed we were shopping alongside more sports fans than grown-up IOP kids. Everyone is hurried, but not any more than would be typical for a visit to the grocery store on a weeknight.
When we arrive home, my roommates and I are disappointed to realize that the Stouffer’s Party Pack takes nearly two hours to cook.
Wassim sighs. “Do we really need to allow it to cool for 15 minutes?” he asks. “Can’t we just eat it?”
“The instructions say to let it sit ‘in order to allow the lasagna to finish cooking’” — Joey makes air quotes with his free hand, holding the box close to his face with the other — “it says that explicitly.” Wassim remains unconvinced. “It can’t actually cook that long outside the oven, can it?” We exchange fatigued glances.
But because it boasts twice the meat of a standard lasagna, we decide it’s better not to chance it. The three of us return to the futon while the oven preheats. A day already defined by waiting will require a bit more patience, it seems.
I think about suburban women a lot during the days-long liminal state that follows Election Day, when my sleep is bad and I try to search for answers on my own. The media narrative was that areas like mine, in only a handful of states, would end up deciding the election.
I am no Nate Silver, I tell myself, but I know lots of suburban women in North Carolina.
While I refresh Silver’s Twitter account over and over, I think about whether my mom’s apolitical friend ended up voting. I think about my high-school friend who convinced her Republican mother to vote for Biden this year. I think about the couple my mom told me about that decided not to vote because the woman supported Biden and the man supported Trump and they didn’t want to get a divorce.
I also think about why I’m spending so much time thinking about all of this at all. Even if suburban women represent an important voting bloc, their demographics and their relative economic stability mean that, compared to other populations, they are affected less by the pandemic, by voter suppression, by Trump’s policies on immigration. The Radiolab episode felt like a fun psychological analysis of why these women thought the way they did — but, when I listened to the podcast, I couldn’t help but feel unsettled by the ease with which the hosts could divorce their analysis from the gravity of these women’s decisions.
And I did it too. With my earbuds in and the podcast playing, I could forget that beneath the veneer of national-level importance foisted upon my town, millions of lives hung in the balance. I could pretend that Jill Biden’s visit to my elementary school was peculiarly close to home and the policies of the Trump Administration weren’t.
By Thursday, it’s clear that Trump will prevail in North Carolina, even though none of the networks have called the state just yet. Jill Biden’s last-minute speech was unsuccessful. I guess it’ll be quiet again here for another four years.
The first decoration I see when R. Zhou ’24 signs on the Zoom call is the pride flag hanging on the wall behind them. They put it there on purpose, they say, so that other BGLTQ classmates could identify them and reach out.
For them, the results of the 2020 presidential election held personal stakes. “I’ve been in a relationship for the last three years, and obviously we’ve talked about our future and getting married,” Zhou says. “So once Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed, I was terrified. I was like, ‘Am I not going to be able to get married to the person that I love?’”
While we speak, the sounds of honking and celebration still pour in through Zhou’s open window to Harvard Square. But Zhou says their own reaction is “held back.” “I don’t want to diminish the efforts of people who put work into this,” Zhou says. “Obviously I understand that. We can take this moment for celebration and for rest, but our work still continues.”
Zhou knows the extent of that effort well: Over the past few months, they have worked relentlessly to recruit volunteers to phone-bank with them for the Michigan Democratic Party. Zhou spent Election Day dialing in, making sure voters knew where to vote, how to vote, where to drop off absentee ballots, and registering voters one hour before the polls closed.
Watching states that were red in 2016 flip blue reaffirmed and validated their efforts, Zhou says – especially in Michigan, where they phonebanked.
For Zhou, organizing won’t end with the inauguration of a new president. “There’s always another campaign,” they say. “At the end of the day, I still want to get a lot of these people who voted against our community out of office.”
In the future, Zhou says they would like to organize with other members of the BGLTQ community to secure marriage equality and other rights.
But organizing these days is hard, Zhou says, especially with community-building largely relegated to the online domain during the pandemic.
“There’s a fire inside of me, and at the same time I have no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” Zhou says.
The sun has long set when Bella Tarantino ’24 walks to the steps of Widener Library, the usual bounce in their step, carrying a brown bag with boxed Annenberg dinner. It’s chicken and rice night. Upon hearing that Joe Biden had won the election, Tarantino says their friend called their name, “screaming.”
“I came out and she’s like, ‘How are you feeling mentally?’ and I’m like, ‘Pretty sick,’” Tarantino says with a smile. “It just feels like it’s very hard to feel like the government is ever on your side. But for once, it sort of felt like just a little bit, the government was on our side. Just a little bit.”
Though Tarantino says they are “so so happy” at Biden’s victory, they believe that both parties still have progress to make in terms of BGLTQ inclusion and rights.
They don’t often discuss politics with their BGLTQ friends, Tarantino says, as most of them share similar political interests. “I feel like most of the time I’m with other LGBT people, it’s supposed to be about being chill and having a good, solid environment and people who are there to support you rather than like, ‘let’s talk about things that piss me off.’”
But today, politics is a reason to celebrate, and they’re excited to talk about it with their friends.
I’m surprised by my relief. I had thought I was more clear-eyed than this — not cynical necessarily, but realistic. Yet as I leave Somerville, I honk excitedly when a child catches my eye on Beacon St., happily banging a wooden spoon against a skillet; I allow myself to listen to a few songs from “Hamilton” as I drive.
I had spent most of the day tied to my computer in several hours of Zoom meetings. Late in the morning, I learned that Pennsylvania had been called for Biden, effectively ending Trump’s electoral chances. Not long after, shouts and honks wafted through my window from an elated Somerville. Occasionally, someone’s box on the Zoom call would glow green as they inadvertently piped the sounds of celebration into the meeting. But we remained glued to our computers nonetheless, kids kept inside during recess.
When at last the meetings concluded, I closed my laptop and hastily packed a suitcase. My sister is due to have a baby any day now, and I’m driving home to quarantine with my other siblings. I dragged my bags to the car, settled in, and there at last the relief overwhelmed me.
As I leave, I go out of my way to weave through Harvard Square just for fun. By now the crowds have dissipated, save for a few pedestrians who cheer when they make eye contact. I cross the Charles and turn onto the Mass Pike. Silence. Sealed inside the car and speeding through the darkness, the election feels strangely removed, distant.
It’s a familiar feeling, one I remember from four years prior.
I had watched the results of the 2016 election in Marrakech, Morocco. That fall, the city hosted the United Nations’ Twenty-Second Conference of Parties, the climate change summit aimed at implementing the previous year’s Paris Agreement. In the weeks leading up to the conference, a carnival-like energy possessed the country: Inspired school children patrolled the streets collecting litter, and in Rabat, where I lived at the time, the government decorated the city’s tramcars with decals bearing COP22’s logo. My classmates and I wanted to see the carnival up close, to maybe even catch a glimpse of John Kerry. So the Saturday before the election, we boarded a train for Marrakech.
Diplomats and NGO workers flooded the streets, light blue badges dangling from their lanyards. The conference seemed to touch every aspect of the city; few seemed focused on Clinton or Trump. We shared our small hotel with the staff of a Nigerian climate justice organization, and each morning we’d exchange smiles and curt hellos over the breakfast tables before hurrying off to a talk in Gueliz or a presentation at the conference center in Bab Ighli.
On Tuesday evening, election day in the United States, we stopped by a Carrefour and purchased candy, watermelon, and a bottle of sparkling apple cider. We were returning to Rabat Wednesday morning, so we planned to stay up and watch the results on a laptop in the hotel. We’d go to bed once Florida was called for Clinton and wake up in time to see the speeches.
As the evening’s prognosis changed rapidly, we remained glued to the laptop. Florida never flipped. No one went to sleep. Eventually someone opened a second laptop, and we began taking turns running electoral map simulations. We watched live as Van Jones delivered a soliloquy about “whitelash.”
Eventually someone closed the laptops, and a funereal air filled the room. As the sun rose, we packed our bags in silence and prepared to leave. The bottle of sparkling apple cider had been left untouched. Unsure of what to do, I carried it to the breakfast room, figuring I could leave it on the table with the orange juice.
As I opened the door, I found myself face-to-face with one of the NGO staffers; in my shock, my tiredness, I had nearly walked straight into her. We both took a step back instinctively. I apologized. Standing in the doorframe, she took in the bottle and the gaudy, unbroken golden foil on its neck; she glanced over my shoulder and saw my friends and their suitcases, a gaggle of American teenagers standing despondent, terrified, hysterical in the lobby.
The tips of her lips curled into a wry smile. As we brushed past each other, she chuckled and shook her head dismissively.
I was filled with rage. Couldn’t she see how devastated we were? Didn’t she realize what the election results would mean for the conference, for the Paris Agreement, even for her own NGO?
The breakfast room was empty. I threw the apple cider in the trash. We grabbed our bags and made for the train station.
When I arrived home that afternoon, my host father could see I was upset. “I’m really sorry,” he said. “Do you want to talk about it?” We sat down for dinner and I told him of my shock, of my encounter with the woman in the doorway.
“I understand you’re disappointed with the election results,” he said after a moment. He leaned back in his stool and dipped a crust of bread in his bowl of lentils and merguez. “But maybe being away from your country has forced you to see America the way the rest of the world sees it. The way we” — he swung the bread around in a wide circle — “see it.”
I looked up from my bowl, confused. “Do you think Trump really represents that much of a break for that woman? Or for Moroccans?” he asked. “Maybe that woman did understand how you and your friends felt,” he continued. “In fact, I bet she felt the same way you did — she just wasn’t surprised.”
As I speed down the highway, I think back on 2016, the apple cider, the woman in the doorway. If she were to see the celebrations on Beacon St. and in Harvard Square, if she were to hear the honking and the Hamilton, I imagine she would have the same reaction: a wry smile, a chuckle; a dismissive shake of the head.
In the celebrations that followed Biden’s victory, I could honk and cheer, wave a flag, open a long delayed bottle of sparkling apple cider or, now that I’m of age, cheap champagne. I could once again ignore the face of America I’d rather not see. But I couldn’t make it go away.
— Staff writer Nina B. Elkadi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ElkadiNina.
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