The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point

By David Daniel

On the Saturday that the official results of the 2020 Presidential election were declared, my wife and I were in Springfield, visiting her brother Tony. The concurrence of the two events was coincidental, the get-together having been planned for some weeks. The weather was refreshingly warm for mid-November and five of us, and one dog, all socially-distanced and observing state guidelines for COVID-19 prevention, gathered on my brother-in-law’s deck, overlooking the Longmeadow Golf Course.

My brother-in-law is an Ivy-League-educated math major who worked many years as an actuary, and now was a numbers guy with the Federal Election Commission. He’d been on his laptop all morning prior to our arrival. But now it was time to relax and tip a few—in this case, scotch;  a practice he and I have been observing for years.

As we talked, maybe loosened by the scotch, and because it was the news of the day, we got on the topic of the vote count. Tony is a total numbers guy, lives and breathes them, and he mentioned that the FEC has a supercomputer with a “processing speed on its 1,572,480 cores to 94.6 petaFLOPS.” I have no idea what this means, absolutely none; so, I remarked, “That must be able to slice the baloney pretty thin, huh?”

Verrry thin,” Tony said. “You don’t even want to know.”

We sipped the Scotch. A word about that. There’s an old tactic of bringing the host a gift that you really want. In this case, I’d brought a bottle of 25-year-old Talisker single-malt. I know Tony favors the peaty end of the spectrum while I like the smoky, and this was a fine balance.

“Well,” he said, pursuing his own thought, “we’ve been able to take the voting down to a nano level.”

Then he revealed that they had been able to identify—theoretically—the single critical vote that tipped the election. I was fascinated, and I pressed him. He said the vote was cast in rural Pennsylvania. “So, it was the keystone vote.” He chuckled. He’s pretty buttoned-down, but he couldn’t help himself, I guess. But I was so wowed by the idea that there could be—”in theory” he reminded me—a single vote in an election that saw a record number of ballots cast.

“You mean,” I asked, “you’ve actually identified an individual who cast the winning vote?”

Tony nodded. “We have a name.”

My brain, obviously working at a very slow processing speed compared with his, and the IBM supercomputer, pondered that. 150 million citizens had voted and the person who had cast the tie-breaking vote could be identified? Tony confirmed it. As a sworn member of the FEC, however, he refused to tell me more. I accepted that. He’d taken an oath, right? Was a man of honor, a graduate of a college whose Latin motto means truth.

I drifted around the perimeter of the deck, enjoying the mild sunshine, talking through my mask to in-laws, lowering it to nibble. But as I thought more about what Tony had revealed, I found my curiosity spiking. Okay, Tony has a responsibility to determine and protect certain facts. But, dammit, don’t I have a responsibility as a writer—an intrepid seeker of truth? I poured another two fingers of scotch and carried the bottle over to where Tony stood.

“How ‘bout a hint?” I just floated it out there, like a fly fisher laying down line on a tranquil pool where a prize trout may lie.

I realized that to give a name could potentially alter the individual’s life, thrust him/her into a glare of scrutiny. Maybe endanger them at the hands of drooling QAnons armed with pitchforks and AR-15s, or make them the poster child for sugar-plum visions of a shining socialist society.

And yet, I reasoned: Tony, as a federal worker, is, in effect, my employee (not to mention his being a decade and a half younger than I and having always looked up to me). Solemnly, I said, “C’mon, I won’t tell a soul.”

He mentioned that the vote was cast in Jefferson county, PA, southeast of Pittsburgh. “In a small town near Punxsutawney.”

“Where the groundhog pops out each February and city officials wear the top hats and—?”

“That’s the place.”

My mind took that for a spin around the block. Story possibilities sprang up. Was Punxsutawney Phil prognosticating more than seasonal change now? Was the intrepid woodchuck telling us how the national political winds blow?  

But Tony’s math mind was going, filling in background. Extrapolating from the nanosecond, adjusting for time zones, etc., he said the machine was able to identify that that vote, cast by that individual, was the tipping point vote of the most consequential election of our lifetime. And I was on the case. Young, old? Man, woman? Pushing for further detail. But Tony wouldn’t give it. I tried pulling rank—I’m older, his guest.  I love your sister. Nope. Sorry. Finally, desperate, I got an idea. I took the bottle of Talisker, twisted off the cap, and held it up. Peace. He relaxed. He offered his empty glass.

I held the bottle over the deck rail, tipped it, and poured a splash onto the green November grass below.

Tony was aghast. He reached for the bottle. I moved my arm and spilled out some more.

He cracked then. “Okay, I’ll tell you what I know!”

He licked his lips, the picture of a man wrestling with angels and demons. Then, making the sign of the cross (did I mention my in-laws are Greek American?),  he told me the rest of what he knew.

Since then, doing my own research I’ve learned quite a lot. Curious? Do you want to know the name of the individual who cast the tipping point vote for the most momentous, most important election in our lifetimes? Learn what led them to that historic choice and, arguably, saved our democracy from ruin?

I’ll tell you. But first, I’d like you to do me a favor, though.

Read my book on the subject when it appears next summer. The Keystone Vote promises to make me a giant among writers, fabulously rich, and is certain to project me into the warm glow of history’s limelight. Bigger than Joe the Plumber and the Pillow Guy. Bigger than Anthony Weiner. But for now, I’m just one of the little people, like everyone else: thankful for survival and for family, joyous at the election’s outcome (or sad, angry, or indifferent) as our politics dictate, making my way along through the days.

11 Responses to The Tipping Point

  1. Steve O'Connor says:

    Dave, I’m pretty sure your writer’s imagination is processing at a speed of at least 2,572,480 cores to 103.9 petaFLOPS.

  2. Tim Trask says:

    I like the way the “tipping point” refers both to the election and to the BIL’s lack of tolerance for seeing Talisker single malt Scotch going to waste.

    For a while, I thought that the Pennsylvania hero of the election was going to be the same guy who made the summer of love so interesting in White Rabbit.

  3. David Cappella says:

    Pouring away even a drop of top shelf scotch is not in either your real or imagined world, for sure. But your prose is as balanced as the Talisker.

  4. Jack Dacey says:


    Very well put. I will keep my eyes peeled for “The Keystone Vote.” Among my friends I am a renowned technodoofus. I think cores are the insides of apples. Petaflops are when the dog tries to run on the ice. Bytes are what you take out of a pyzza. A tumbler of quality scotch beats technology every time. There really is a God, and in the 2020 presidential election, he delivered!


  5. Chris O'Connor says:

    Name aside (although whoever it is, they have my everlasting gratitude), I’m interested in learning more about the “tipping point” – about how it is identified and measured, and what is the significance when there is such a convincing win?
    Great essay by the way!

  6. David Daniel says:

    Chris, thanks for your note–your “everlasting gratitude” line made me smile. Truth to tell, however,(and I don’t want to disappoint), this yarn is a total fiction, something I concocted that sunny Saturday when the news came that the election had truly been declared.

    My wife and I were driving westbound on Mass Turnpike and there was a sudden surrounding sounding of car horns. As you and I know that, rationally, it’s impossible to read exact meaning into the blare of horns, I could swear that what they were saying that moment was “YES!!!”

  7. Gerard J Bisantz says:

    Dave, my guess is that person who made THAT vote was enjoying a nice drink of high quality scotch yesterday, thanking the Good Lord and congratulating him/her/self with a nice toast. Now, if I can only find a “tipping point” for my Buffalo Bills this year!

  8. Jeannie Judge says:

    Hi David,

    Great story! I am with Jack and Chris–everlasting gratitude. My son in VT went to the rooftop of his down-town building and watched the cars slow down on the main street as drivers honked their horns and passengers leaned out their windows to wave to pedestrians jumping up and down. There were no doubts about the reason. He sent me a video.

    My daughter in NJ sent me a video of the same moment that Saturday as people wearing masks (and not clustering) spilled out of their doorways to shout “Biden and Harris” with glee as cars stopped and honked while celebrants danced on the sidewalks. Yes!