Written for an online horror magazine's "Election Horror" contest to coincide with the historic 2008 U.S. Presidential elections, John's story "Provisional Ballot" is a "short short" at under 1000 total words. The story recounts the strange, reality-altering effects of one man's attempt to cast his provisional ballot and is reminiscent of an episode of The Twilight Zone.
by John Nolley II
"Gotta remember to pick up some milk," Walther muttered, fiddling with the string he'd knotted around his index finger at his wife's insistence before leaving for the polls. A futile gesture, he knew, but still...
The line stretched at least double what Walther could remember—and he'd been voting at the same precinct since 1956. With the economy deeply in the tank, war again as out-of-style as the suede elbow patches on Walther's twill blazer, and pundits by the dozen labeling this the "most important" election in a generation, Walther decided he oughtn't have been surprised at the turnout. Well—he'd brought his paper, anyway.
He deliberately ignored the election coverage; there'd been enough of that to last him several lifetimes already. Instead, he flipped past the banalities of pro athletics and custody disputes between Hollywood faces before settling on a safe piece about rising tensions in the Middle East.
A hand reached over the edge of Walther's paper, momentarily covering a story about some woman who'd left several million to Fluffy. Taking the copy's place was the bored face of one of the pollworkers.
"Name and address?"
Walther hemmed before producing his driver's license and explaining that his registration had a mistake, that his name was "W-A-L-T-H-E-R, not W-A-L-T-E-R," note the extra "H" just like his middle initial. He'd tried getting it corrected several times with no luck.
"You'll have to use the provisional ballot," the clerk said, waving off Walther's protest. "Take it up with the registrar."
When he reached to pull shut the booth's curtains, the ballot slipped out of Walther's hand. Setting his paper on the little folding table, Walther bent to retrieve the slip from the booth's floor. "Now then," he said, fumbling for his pen. He'd have to decide which candidate to check off—like so many elections he'd voted, the two seemed interchangeable aside from their physical appearances. "Yes, which."
Walther had taken his glasses out of his pocket, but he didn't need them to make out the two names headlining the ticket, nor after rubbing his eyes did he think his glasses would have changed "Harry S. TRUMAN" or "Thomas E. DEWEY" into the current candidates.
"Thinks he's funny, does he?" Walther crumpled the faux ballot—but realizing he'd need it to prove he wasn't trying to vote twice, he smoothed the paper out again. Before he swung open the curtains, impulse seized his pen, and Walther marked an "X" next to one of the candidates.
The same group of volunteers manned the registration tables, though hadn't the one who'd given Walther his ballot been wearing a four-in-hand before? Now he sported a bowtie.
"I say, what sort of bad joke is this?" Walther said, handing the clerk his ballot. When the pollworker stared blankly at the paper, Walther explained, "Come on—give me a clean ballot, and the right one this time, please."
The clerk made a bit of a show rolling his stamp across the ink pad before pounding several times "VOID," but he handed Walter another ballot anyway.
Walther had just set his newspaper down to took a look at the fresh ballot when the lead headline caught his eye. Surely that most infamous of election miscalls hadn't been reprinted in today's paper—no, "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN" would have no place in coverage of this election.
"Must be a heck of a joke to bother with an old man's paper," Walther grumbled. Expecting another of the bogus ballots, he wasn't disappointed—though the names did come as something of a surprise.
"At least I was around to vote in that one," he said, marking on impulse next to "NIXON" where once he'd voted "KENNEDY"—and after all, ol' Tricky Dick had made it to the Oval Office a few years later, and the world hadn't come to an end.
Again Walther marched the ballot back to the clerk for a new one; again when returning to the booth he found they'd pulled one over on him. This time he checked "CARTER" where he'd opted for an actor-turned-governor nearly three decades before. Returning to the table, there seemed to be something different about the room, but Walther shook his head at the silly thought.
By the fifth or six time, Walther began voting contrarian out of spite. "So what if Lincoln out-debated Douglas?" he decided, marking "BRECKINRIDGE" for President and creasing the ballot smartly in half. As he walked back to the clerk's table, Walther mused briefly that the electorate waiting patiently in line had grown decidedly less diverse during his time in the booth, a baffling desertion by so many voters who'd found new enthusiasm in this year's Democratic candidacy.
Again, the pollworker rolled his eyes—now wearing a little cross on a cord instead of a tie—and covered Walther's ballot in a massacre of red-inked "VOIDs."
"Try to get it right this time, okay?" the clerk said. "We've only got so many provisional ballots to go 'round, and I don't want to have to figure out who to call to get some more."
Walther gave the clerk a short "harrumph" but took the ballot. He didn't know why he even went through the motions, for when he reached the booth, he saw this time two candidates whose names he didn't even recognize. Figuring someone with a name like "SCUDDER" had to be a thoroughly despicable sort, he marked a bold "X" next to his name and marched back to the registration table.
"I demand you stop this silliness and let me vote!"
"That's a good one, gramps," the clerk said, taking the paper and giving Walther a not-kindly slap on the back as he gestured toward the row of voting booths. "Whadda you think this is, a democracy? Now go on and get in there."
On the other side of the curtain, Walther heard a sound much like he imagined the drawing-back the heavy bolt of a rifle would make.
in John's words:
Getting the story to under 1000 words (the contest limit) yet maintaining a clear, understandable narrative that conveyed the events I wanted was pretty tough, but I'm pleased with the results. As a bonus, see if you can pick out the allusion tip-of-the-hat to the 2012 elections in Robert Heinlein's "Future History" stories...