Salt Lake City – The Power of Unintended Consequences
I woke up on the morning of December 19 with no plans for air travel that day, but here it was, 9:00pm on a Sunday night and I was on a flight to Salt Lake City. How did I get here, you might wonder. Well, a couple weeks before, I had signed a petition asking for the Electoral College electors to withhold their vote for Trump. The petition had gone viral, gathering almost 5 million signatures; an all time online petition record. The number of signatures had increased by tens of thousands each day, prompting me to do a little research on the Electoral College. What was the purpose of this representative body and why did our country’s founders chose it over a one person-one vote pure democracy? I wanted to understand why a vote in Wyoming was worth 3.6 times more than my vote in California.
So I did a little bit of reading. Yes, I actually read some of the Federalist Papers! The more I read, the more it appeared to me that this outmoded electoral body, rather than rubber stamping a Trump presidency, could prevent him from taking office. After all, it was their Constitutional duty to ensure “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”
So it’s Sunday afternoon, the day before the electoral vote. The hope of a recount changing the election results had been dashed weeks before. I’m getting ready for an open house that I’m obligated to attend when I feel in my gut that I have to go to a red state. I need to support those people who are hoping that their electors will do the right thing and refuse to cast their vote for Trump. I know it sounds crazy, but I really needed to be with people who faced being in the minority every day. It’s easy to be surrounded by people who think like I do, but it must be very hard to keep fighting when you’re always outnumbered. Deciding to go at the last minute didn’t leave me many red states to choose from. To arrive that evening I had just two choices, Utah and Arizona. I chose Utah. Alright, to be completely honest, I could have reached other red states in time for the vote, but I just couldn’t face getting on a red-eye. I guess I haven’t morphed into an “at any cost” political warrior yet. And besides, Utah is 75% republican, those democrats needed all the support they could get. And if you’ve been to Utah, you know those Utahns are so nice!
After a few hours of restless half-sleep I show up at the capital building. It’s 19 degrees but incredibly beautiful. Those people of Utah have one impressive capital.
There are only 16 people gathered. “Oh great”, I think. I’m going to my first demonstration and it is going to be one of the all time smallest protests ever. But what had I expected? Actually I didn’t have expectations, I just had hope. But of course people came. Within the hour there were a couple hundred people gathered at the base of an impressive set of marble stairs. A loosely organized, but highly energetic group of people started introducing themselves, comparing where they were from and how far they had driven, and generally getting to know each other. Four women absorbed me into their group. Upon hearing I had flown in from San Francisco they looked at me as if I had three heads. “Why would you come to Utah? Why didn’t you just go to the the capital in California?” I did my best to explain the unexplainable, to explain the urge I had to stand in support with those who probably didn’t receive all that much support.
The format of the rally was fairly loose. Several people took turns addressing the group; a Native American chief, a female muslim activist, and someone from the Dakota Access Pipeline all spoke. Word had spread that there was a crazy woman who had flown out from California and I was encouraged to say a few words too. Luckily I’m better at impromptu speeches than anything I prepare ahead of time. I told them about the urge in my gut to head to a red state at the last minute. I commended their courage and perseverance, and I told them that I was there on behalf of the many Californians I knew that would have liked to be there too. And then I spoke about my 95 year old WWII veteran grandfather who had died the week before. I told them how sad it made me that he had lived just long enough to be utterly disappointed by his fellow Americans. He told me he was glad he wouldn’t be around to witness the damage. I stood on those stairs and cried.
Eventually it was time to enter the courtroom. Ironically, I had left the building for a few minutes and when I returned the room was full and the crowd overflowed into the hallway. “Oh my god”, I thought, “I came all this way and I won’t even be able to watch what happens.” But a couple of folks saw me standing at the rear of the crowd and yelled for people to let me by. “Let the woman from California get in the room,” they hollered. Usually I wouldn’t take advantage of a situation, but in this case, I really wanted to be inside.
The room was packed. Almost everyone held signs begging the electors to vote their conscience. There was one lone guy in a “Make America Great” hat who sat one row back and kept to himself, while an entire class of second graders sat on the floor just in front of where the electors would sit. Their teacher explained how the attendees were exercising their constitutional right to gather and peacefully protest. She also attempted a basic explanation of the Electoral College, but I could see that even the adults around her weren’t fully comprehending what she had to say. The Electors filed in, the Attorney General brought the meeting to order, then he joked that in all the years he had overseen the electoral vote, they had never had more than 4 observers. The crowd wasn’t exactly amused.
No one in the room expected all 6 electors to change their vote. But each of us held out hope that one or two might withhold or cast their vote for a candidate other than Trump. After all, Utah had their own Evan McMullin; he’d garnered 21% of the total vote, almost as much as Hillary, maybe they would vote for him. Unfortunately, all six voted for Trump.
The disappointment was palpable. Many of the people in the room were in tears. Tears gathered in my eyes as well. Hope is a wonderful thing, but when it’s dashed it can be devastating. Most of the people just stayed slumped in their seat or gathered in small groups with looks of muted shock. The optimism in the air had been sucked from the room. It was over and all I could do was head back to the airport.
As I made my way towards the door I was intercepted by a small group of women. “We wanted you to know,” said the spokesperson for the group, each of them crying and looking despondent, “today was another disappointment in a long string of disappointments for us. We all feel like giving up; it just doesn’t seem to be worth the effort anymore. But you came all this way because you felt it was important to be with us. Thank you for reminding us that we have to keep trying.”
I drove back to the airport wondering if this unforeseen outcome was the reason I got on that plane the day before. If so, I hope I keep listening to my gut. I can always hope.