The Watchers

It’s November 8, early evening, and you’re off to vote. Since you live close to the polling place, and you and your husband decide to walk there. There’s a late-autumn chill, but a few moments of discomfort are tolerable because you’re doing your civic duty. Maybe you’ll stop for coffee after, or grab a beer.

About half way there you encounter your first election watcher. You’ve heard that they’d be around, appointed to ensure an “honest” process.

“Going to vote?” the man says casually. Jeans. Windbreaker. He’s not large, but his unwillingness to employ any expression other than a scowl makes you uncomfortable. You nod a response, your husband eyes him warily, neither of you chooses to engage him in any conversation. He falls into step behind you.

“Have your IDs ready?” he asks. “Picture? Everything in order?”

You refuse to participate any further, but your husband hopes to end the conversation.

“Of course,” he said, “this is not our first election.”

“Uh huh. Lot of voter fraud in this area,” the watcher says. “Just trying to keep a lid on that sort of thing.”

You hold your tongue—you know that there have been no reported incidents of voter fraud in your neighborhood in decades, if ever. But you just want out of this asinine conversation. You pick up your pace, your husband does likewise. Fifty feet ahead stands another watcher. When you get closer she puts the cellphone to her face and snaps a photo.

You break your silence. “I hope that was a selfie.”

“No, she says.”

“Then what was it for?”

“Records,” she says.

You tell her to erase the photo but she claims it’s already posted. Exactly where, she doesn’t know. She is merely following orders. You realize then that the photo already resides in storage somewhere and that any further dispute would be futile. So you ask a question.

“Are there watchers in the white sections of this city?”

It’s an inflammatory question but this person deserves no less.

“There are watchers everywhere,” she says, “we’re trying to get a lid on….”

“Were you trained for this job?”

“Yes, of course. In two sessions.”

“How many people of color were in your session?”

“People of color?”

“Yes, like my husband and me. How many?”

“I don’t know.”

“Take a guess.”

“I can’t remember.”

“There were none, were there?”

“Listen, ma’am, I don’t want any trouble. We’re just….”

You cut her off. “Trying to get a lid things, I know. Do you live nearby?”

“No.”

“Of course not. Why would you live here? Tell me, how many white people have you stopped and photographed? Since you can’t erase photos, show me the ones you’ve taken.”

She refuses. It’s classified, she says. By this time the first watcher, the casual man, has caught up.

“Problem?” he says. He pulls aside his windbreaker to reveal a pistol. Legal. Licensed. Holstered. But still….

You don’t answer. The anger has begun to intermingle with fear and you take your husband’s hand—not for protection but to remind him that he is not allowed to take a risk. You both understand that all around you black, Latino, and Muslim voters are being “watched” by the vigilantes initiated by one of the candidates who has whined for months about rigged elections. It is harassment pure and simple, the poll tax reborn in its 2016 version; but if you turn and go home—which is all you want to do—the candidate will be proven right. Gripping your husband’s hand tighter you continue on, but the honor of voting has lost its luster and the evening has grown colder. Next time, maybe, you will stay home.

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