New York, New York

Elephant in the Room

Republicans are hard to come by in New York, so is it any shock the city’s voting machines prefer Democrats? A true tale of election-day partisan mechanics.

Yeah, there’s Bloomberg, and rumor has it Staten Island is crawling with elephants, but as far as the actual rank and file go, Republicans in New York City are less common than a hamburger at Fashion Week. I am one of them—a Republican, not a hamburger, though I’d be rare in either case—and the sheer oddity of my existence was made clear to me yesterday, primary day, when more than several but less than many New Yorkers headed to their designated polling places.

I left my apartment a little before nine and made my way down 10th Avenue toward the public school cafeteria where I cast my lot on election days. The place had the manic but sparse feel of a recently decommissioned asylum. I waited briefly at the wrong table, because it was under the right sign, but I was happy to move along so three volunteers could resume arguing bitterly with each other. My table was a few feet away, overflowing with half a dozen volunteers and no voters. When I approached, an older lady shuffled over as well, eyes fixed on the ground—the kind of lady you might assume on the street was crazy. I thought she was going to vote, but then it occurred to me she was another volunteer, perhaps a supervisor, attracted by the smell of civic responsibility. A very earnest man found my name in the registered-voters book, asked for my “John Hancock,” and pushed the book forward for me to sign.

Hancock in place, I proceeded to the voting booth, ducked through the heavy curtain, and pulled the lever all the way to the right. The booth was now ready to fire—or so I thought. This should have been relatively easy. There was only one Republican contest on the ballot: between John Spencer and K.T. McFarland for the U.S. Senate nomination. But when I flicked the little lever next to Spencer’s name, it resisted flicking. My thumb slid clean off.

Democracy had seemingly taken a significant step backward on an otherwise pleasant September morning.

I tried again, this time grasping the little bugger between my thumb and forefinger. Nothing. I wiggled it. No go. I leaned my weight into it. It refused to budge. I suspected dirty tricks—damn you, McFarland!—and inspected the thing for glue. Finally, not wanting to break the little lever next to my favored candidate, I ducked my head out and said, I believe, “Uh, the thing won’t work.”

The volunteers asked, sort of collectively, if I’d pulled the lever to the right. When I assured them that I had, the earnest man who took my signature was dispatched to join me in the booth. I demonstrated my attempt to turn the little lever. Then he tried. After what looked to be some real physical exertion on his part, he took half a step back and surveyed the board. “Ah,” he said and sort of nodded. “This is Republican,” he said. “You have to vote Democratic.”

“Excuse me?” I said. Democracy had seemingly taken a significant step backward on an otherwise pleasant September morning.

“It’s a primary,” he explained. “You have to vote Democratic.”

“But….” I said, pausing and trying to wrap my brain around my sudden lack of electoral options, “it’s a Republican Primary, as well?”

I knew this to be true but I wasn’t sure he’d buy it. He looked at me, a bit confused.

“But if you’re a registered Democrat…”

“But I’m not. I’m a registered Republican.”

And now the light shined in for both of us. He turned back to the board, trying to find the easy button that would allow me to vote, but as he looked around, we were called out of the machine.

“You have to come out now!” one or three of the other volunteers said in low shouts. Just a few feet away, they’d heard the entire exchange. “Come back out!”

And so we did. The green card they’d filled out for me was taken out of the machine and a new pinkish-red card prepared. The machine was “switched.” The phrase “He’s a Republican” was repeated, in various forms by various people, maybe 20 times. The possibly crazy lady mumbled something that sounded like “Republican,” then put her hands to either side of her head and made an exploding gesture. Either she meant it had been a serious mental meltdown not to note my Republican-ness in the first place, or that it was a serious mental meltdown to be a Republican. We stood there for a moment, each quite possibly considering the other crazy.

And then the problem was fixed, and it was back into the booth for me. I pulled the big lever, flicked the little lever, and pulled the big lever back again. Behind the curtains, I heard one of the volunteers say, “He’s the first one, the first one…”

Maybe he meant the first one that day, but it seemed more like he meant the first one ever. Another volunteer softly chanted “Republican! Republican!” and his tone had none of the frenzy or conviction you might associate with, say, rooting for a sports team. It had more of the whimsy that you’d associate with the improbable. It was less “Let’s go Yankees!” And more “Look at that emu!”

No doubt about it, Republicans are rare birds in New York City. Still, we are no less a part of the ecosystem than a hawk or the occasional coyote. We clear away carrion and transact stocks. And, just a heads-up, sometimes we vote.

Writer Michael Northrop is an editor at Time Inc and the author of Gentlemen, a novel for young adults/teens forthcoming from Scholastic. In addition to being a Republican in New York City, he is also a Red Sox fan. He is just like that. More by Michael Northrop