Outside, the day was ending. It was ambling toward dusk, though that reflected more in the shade the overcast clouds turned, rather than any true vibrancy in the world. It was autumn, and most of the leaves were already gone. Matt Ellenberg downed the last of his oversized caffeine mug, closed his spreadsheets, and waited for the end of day chime.
This election year had been particularly rough. Political ads drowned out all reason and substance on the TV, day and night, from the anchors’ pre-paid statements to the ads themselves placed on repeat. No one yelled, as they used to. No one threw any tantrums. But the insidious thrum of the words which ate so greedily at all sense made that worse, not better. Hours of talk, with nothing to say.
The election was great.
The election was simple.
Thank God above for rendering unto Caesar such a wondrous institution as the election.
When the bell rang and Matt was released from his chair, he joined the cattle press out of the building. Only the last vestiges of sun remained by then—greatness came from those who worked hard, not played hard. They shuffled to their cars, a sea of suits and even a few odd skirts, but they were in too much of a rush for chatter. Matt joined the queue of cars as quickly as he could, which joined the queue of other buildings’ departures onto a flooded highway. He cranked the radio as he prepared for a sit.
After an hour’s crawl out of the city, Matt found himself staring out at the silhouettes of buildings. Among them, a church long closed—his polling place. The computers had already analyzed, totaled, and spat out the election results. There was no need shuffle under the boards and nails and claw up some discarded piece of paper. Their system was too efficient for that.
Similar reasons governed their schedule, since the last election. What need was left for daylight? Idle hands and all that. A nation was made great on the backbone of its workforce. If people didn’t want to spend the day working, they didn’t deserve to eat, and if they didn’t want to eat, they didn’t deserve to vote, because a person who didn’t eat was practically a dead man. Of course it was logical. What sort of an illogical dolt supported people who were anti-food?
Work. Eat. Screw. Sleep. For the children? Even simpler: home school. Eat. Sleep. Or, in the case of Matt’s daughter: Etiquette lessons. Eat. Sleep. This was how great nations were assembled.
At home, Matt slunk inside and dashed off his fabric chains as quickly as he could. He called out, but no one answered—his wife was still caught in traffic, then. Creeping down the hall, hoping for a word with his daughter, he cracked her door just slightly, but found her snores enough to drown all else. Quietly, he clacked the door again and headed back downstairs.
Red numerals on the stove declared it for 9 o’clock. The quickest he had gotten home in a week. He had a whole hour before bed. With a bit of giddiness in his step, Matt lunged onto the couch, spread out, and basked in being able to wholly extend. Then he turned on the TV for the nightly update.
Numbers overlaid state maps behind a man behind a desk. Mr. Schneider, the regional approved anchorman, was all smiles and comb over. As a government authorized voice—journalists, it needed to be said, could not be trusted with facts and figures, for they had the tendency to lie—with computer backing, he conducted the tedious task of transferring raw data to voice based reproduction without adding anything which might be construed as opinion. People tended to feel sorry for him, or not think much about him at all.
After a ritual salute, the man rested his hand carelessly on the desk. He attempted to affect an air of calm.
“Following back and forth as to the merits of border closure, it’s clear that Indiana would have sided with President…”
A key rattled in the lock. Matt looked up and waved at his harried wife, clutching groceries in her overworked arms. Beth stumbled inside and swung the door shut with a heel. When she had finished dropping everything on the counter, she dried her hands on her apron and said, “Didn’t think I’d get home nearly in time.” Then she came over and sat on the floor before the couch, so she could lean her head back into him.
“You’re in time,” Matt said. “Don’t worry none. They’re still doing the Midwest. No surprises there.”
Beth batted him good-naturedly on the arm and kissed his knuckles. “They wouldn’t stop nattering at the grocery about Florida. Kept saying their machines were ripe for hackers.” She rolled her eyes and rested her head on him. “Been saying that for years.”
Not that it mattered, now.
On the screen, the anchor moved brusquely through the Midwest states, ticking one after the other for the incumbent president. It was reassuring to know that, had they been allowed to vote, the computers found that most people would have made the right decision. Matt found his head nodding along with the announcements—dissent in the heartland wouldn’t have been kosher.
“On to the real battleground state,” Mr. Schneider said. “Florida. While immigration changes altered the nature of their economy over recent years, what citizens are left would have voted early and vigorously. The computers predict the cities, still reeling with the violence of previous governments, would have had some discrepancies in voting, but in the rural districts, where polls were open long and without issue, aging members of the constituency would have turned up early and turned the tide. For that reason, Florida seems to have stayed the course. It hasn’t been easy for them, but they have worked hard to make America great again.”
Matt’s fist made a little air pump. Florida had been uncertain. Some of the undesirables were still able to vote there, as the state’s bloated bureaucracy had made it impossible to purge them all in the time between elections. The Feds did what they could, but since they had been cut to bare essentials, there was only so much they could do in the time allowed. Efficient, cost affordable, but slow. Matt could live with that. Apparently, so could the rest of the country.
The lottery of states went on like this almost until the 10 o’clock bell, which would denote the onset of curfew. It was a necessary evil. After the sporadic voting of previous elections, the government had worked tirelessly to round up for jails or deportation those who had no proper connection to the country, but there were always some who slipped through the nets. On the run, with the blue arm of the law on their tails, they tended to be more dangerous than ever. It simply wasn’t safe outside for proper people after dark—no matter how many patrols came through.
Most of America had been through this so many times at this point that they only half-listened to the read-throughs. Matt knew people at work who couldn’t have even told him which way their own state leaned. Disgusting, in his opinion. If one didn’t know what way their state might have been led, they didn’t know the problems they needed to address. The battles still to be fought. Democracy was never safe from those who would take advantage, if given half a chance.
“Seems like they just don’t take their time anymore, you know?”
Matt stirred. “What’s that, dear?”
“The anchors. They don’t give it the flare it deserves. It’s just a straight read. I get the need for objectivity, but they don’t seem to take any joy in it either.” Beth shook her head. “It’s a show. They do still remember that, don’t they?”
He found himself nodding again. He hadn’t thought of it like that. People deserved to be entertained as much as informed.
“Shh. Here comes California.”
That was always the trouble spot. Everyone knew it. Dissenters and squatters, the lot of them. They had actually rioted during the last election, but—thank goodness for those brave men and women—the news had informed them that police heroically suppressed the chaos before it could get out of hand. A few arrests and everyone went home. One fellow needed to be punched on national TV, but as the president liked to say, if you saw a protester, it was only good and right to knock the crap out of them. How else would they learn?
“Some of the girls said Cali was talking about seceding.”
Matt felt the blood go to his cheeks. “Hogwash.”
“It’s true. Mrs. Adams said—”
“Mrs. Adams is an old gossip, and her man’s not even full American.”
His wife pursed her lips and tilted her head. “Pack of crazy fools, but it don’t make them less right.”
“Alright, alright, and what makes them say that? About Cali, I mean.”
Beth chuckled. “Said there were some things going around social media. No deportation without representation or some nonsense like that.”
Oh how he rolled his eyes. California was old-fashioned to the extreme. Not a lick of sense in their heads, and no ability to go with modern times. They still liked to say their economy had been hit, that they had lost people when the deportations happened. Despite all the evidence to the contrary. They were always making things up, trying to weasel out of Federal laws. Just a sure sign the swamp had seeded itself deep there. Some things didn’t drain as quick as others.
Fortunately, those folks didn’t have the guns. Didn’t believe in that right. Well, that sure came back to bite them in the ass.
“He’s almost through!” His wife exclaimed.
After that, there was a long, breathless pause as Mr. Schneider steeled his composure. Then he wagged his electronic notepad in the air with a tired frown. He said, “Well then, fellows. Following that unpleasantness, let’s break it down. California turned out in record lows this year. Amid reports of voter intimidation, vote tampering, and all the like, projections have been enough for the National Guard to be called up to protect citizen interest. Though it turns out that numbers went the opposite way of the rest of the country—repudiating the national drive—I emphasize once again what would have been low voter turnout. There is no reason to believe that California, able to exercise its rights in a free society, without fear of oppression by dissenting parties, would have turned its back on the processes which are daily changing the nature of its economy and society.”
The map lit up, all red, with just that slightest tinge of blue along the West Coast. Numbers skewed the results even further into the scarlet, until the whole thing looked like a blood orchid with only a barest tip in the water. After this, California would be hard-pressed to reach out to other states for support. No one wanted to aid a rebel.
“Well that was exciting,” his wife tittered.
He ran a hand through her hair and kissed the top of Beth’s head. “And you said it was lacking in flare.”
Beth blushed a bit, and batted a hand out playfully. How he loved her. Matt would have been proud to vote for her, as much as for himself. But he understood his place—and he was proud she understood hers as well. Women, in particular, had proven too fickle to be trusted with so great a right. No matter what the West Coast said.
“They’re going to say it wasn’t fair, you know,” Beth said.
He snorted. “Who cares what they say? They’re cheats and liars. You heard the man. Voter fraud. Suppression. All that fascist crap you get when people don’t like what you have to say. Freedom this and freedom that—right up until you disagree with them.”
He scoffed and sat up on the couch. He glanced at the clock and frowned. 10:10. He was going to be tired in the morning.
“Do you think the computers ever get it wrong?”
He was distracted. Matt wanted to be in bed, and lack of sleep made him cranky. “What’s that?” He asked, glancing back at his wife.
Beth had turned the TV off by then, but she was staring at the blank screen as though willpower alone might plant more substance into the flickering box.
She said, “The computers. Do you think it would be different if we actually voted?”
Matt, who worked with computers all day long, found the idea positively scandalous. He had to wonder how his dear wife ever got such a horrid idea in her head. They did it this way so there wasn’t the tension of uncertainty any longer. Simple as that.
“I think you’re tired, and should get some sleep. You know how the girls always wear you out.”
Beth stared a moment longer at the screen, lips curling downward into an approximation of a frown. He hesitated, watching her, uncertain of what to say. Nerves drummed on edge and he marveled how, for the first time in recent memory, his blood pressure threatened to rise.
Then her head shook it all away, and she took his hand in hers. “Shall we?” she asked, and they walked into the darkness without another thought.