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.