It was Election Night. I was lying in bed, watching the coverage, when my mother yelled down the hall. “It’s over!” she screamed. “He’s lost! Go to sleep!”
“No!” I yelled back. “He can still win!”
It was 1964. I had just turned eight. Goldwater was losing to LBJ in a landslide, bur I wasn’t ready to give up.
My political awareness had undergone a steep climb since the previous November, when JFK was shot. On the day of the assassination, I asked my parents if they’d voted for JFK. “No,” I was told. “We voted for Nixon.”
I held it against them. How could they vote against the poor dead guy?
By the time 1968 rolled around, I’d become politically active. After school one day, my friend Robert and I took the subway from Queens to Manhattan and made our way to Nixon headquarters, which I remember as being on Park Avenue. We returned to Queens with boxes of buttons, brochures, and bumper stickers, and spent days handing them out.
My activism dissipated in the ensuing years. In 1972, I guess I figured Nixon could win without my help. By 1976 I was in college. Carter gave me the creeps, but I didn’t get involved, aside from casting my first presidential vote ever for Ford.
As I settled into adulthood, politics took a backseat to — well, almost everything. I voted, but I didn’t cry over losses or cheer over victories.
Nonetheless, I remained a connoisseur of Election Nights. I was still a sucker for the drama of the vote count. I could still be moved by the grand east-to-west procession — the polls closing on the hour, the tallies accumulating, the states being called for one candidate or the other.
For me, it wasn’t so much about who won. It was about experiencing American democracy in all its glory — about bearing witness to the defining ritual of a free civilization.
It was a moving, reassuring spectacle. Candidates vied for public office, but after all the ballots were honestly counted, the loser graciously conceded to the winner. For everyone involved, victory or loss in any given election mattered infinitely less than maintaining the integrity of the system.
Yes, by this time I knew about the chicanery in Texas and Illinois by means of which JFK, with the help of LBJ and the boys in Chicago, had apparently stolen the 1960 election from Nixon. I also knew that the 1876 election had been pretty fishy.
But, hey, Hayes and Tilden were ancient history. And 1960? Well, that was the exception that proved the rule. The rule being that American presidential elections were well-nigh sacred ceremonies with which nobody short of a Joe Kennedy, a Sam Giancana, or a Frank Sinatra would dare trifle.
That rule seemed to be upheld four years ago, when Donald Trump’s victory shocked almost everybody. Nobody hated him more than the New York Times, but the Times website dutifully followed the vote count, and as the numbers turned Trump’s way, the odometer-like dial on its website, which had pointed toward an almost certain Clinton win, steadily moved toward Trump.
None of the mainstream media wanted him to win, but when he won, they called it for him.
Their polls had been all wrong. But their Election Night reporting was fair. They promised they’d do something about the former. Instead they did something about the latter.
Indeed, it wasn’t just Election Night reporting that underwent a major overhaul. It was the whole voting process — which, for the first time, involved massive numbers of mail-in votes. Not only was this new system ripe for fraud — it also destroyed what had been an important communal observance.
It was like taking communion by mail.
Also overhauled was the process of counting votes. For generations, the vote count had gone on without pause until the winner was determined. Now, suddenly, in the year 2020, it bizarrely stopped in the dead of Election Night and then, also bizarrely, started again.
For generations, vote counting had been a straightforward procedure. There’s nothing complicated about it — it’s a matter of adding 1 + 1 + 1, and so on into the night. Any child can do it. Now they have computers to do this. And the computers, it turned out, were screwing things up.
A computer program called Dominion, it was reported, was flipping votes from Trump to Biden. Dominion! It sounded like something out of a movie. (For example, the 1995 Sandra Bullock movie The Net, in which a computer security program called Gatekeeper turns out to be a terrifyingly powerful tool for the covert accrual of untold wealth and power.)
The result of these changes, for someone who’d been watching Election Nights since 1964, was unrecognizable. A great nation’s most hallowed rite had been cruelly mutilated by cynical people who cared about nothing but their own power. And, breathtakingly, it seemed that their number was legion.