In my bluish precinct in thoroughly red Idaho, we vote at the dump. We troop to a doublewide manufactured home that serves as the landfill office, out by the edge of the Caribou National Forest. "Saves the middleman," my late husband liked to say.
Our whole county makes a blue showing in most elections, thanks to its railroad-union heritage and university population. A few other such islands exist in Idaho, including Sun Valley and some Boise neighborhoods. Everywhere else, though, we are outnumbered by the usually conservative ranchers, loggers, family-values folks and the-sky-is-falling crazies. Especially in presidential elections, all Idahoans who dare to consider themselves liberal might as well be voting at the dump.
Nevertheless, my neighbors and I do our civic duty, lining up in the frigid Novembers at an elevation of 4700 feet, and waiting for our turn to move inside the overheated trailer. Because we know to dress for the cold, you might mistake us at first for a Sarah Palin crowd, puffy in our wool hats and down vests. That assumption would be wrong.
We may be rural, eight miles south of Pocatello, but the population includes people who have moved out of town to plant orchards or to raise horses, workers at the phosphate plants, university faculty, doctors, lawyers, retired railroaders and college kids looking for cheap housing. The one thing we all share is an ability to negotiate snowy roads.
When I stood in line at the last election, I noticed that the group seemed pretty prosperous. Many of those vests were pricy Patagonia numbers, and the parking lot held as many hybrids and Subarus as it did pick-up trucks. The dominant topic of our "visiting" in line (as people call conversation here) was resentment at the developers angling to subdivide land along the Mink Creek.
New homes would disrupt migrating deer, the man ahead of me said, and he worried aloud about the moose and calves that winter in the willows every year. We all seemed to agree that the place was getting too developed, including my neighbor the anthropologist who is also a migrant-labor advocate, the man from the cross country ski association, the man who helps at the food bank, two volunteer firefighters, a retired couple.
This November as we gather at the dump, there won't be quite as much at stake for us as for neighbors elsewhere. Only one major Idaho candidate has earned Tea Party endorsement, perhaps because our state can hardly spend less then it does now on education or social services. The American Patriots among us -- a term some Tea Party adherents use -- also tend to aim their venom toward Washington, D.C.
But mud is being slung abundantly nevertheless. Keith Allred, the Democratic candidate for governor, is a thoughtful man with good ideas, but he's being tarred on television and radio as "Too liberal for Idaho!" and accused of eagerness to cut jobs and impose new taxes on school bake sales. He's not completely innocent: His newest ad blames the incumbent, C.L. "Butch" Otter, for the state's economic crisis and speaks of "special interest cronies."
One Senate candidate has accused his opponent of consorting with "your friends at Goldman Sachs." Two others spent much of a televised debate contesting whose ads were sleazier -- admittedly a debatable proposition -- since one slams the other's military service and the other accuses his conservative opponent of profiting financially from illegal immigration.
I've stopped answering the telephone around dinnertime, or listening to the radio, or opening any political mail, which goes straight to the landfill. "I'll be so glad when this is over," said one of my neighbors as we lingered at our mailboxes at the end of the street. She held up three red-white-and-blue campaign fliers that screamed something scurrilous in big type. "They're all being terrible."
This election year in Idaho offers some consolations, including a gubernatorial candidate who has legally renamed himself "Pro-Life" and opposes not only abortion, but also the splitting of atoms as "murder." "God doesn't intend atoms to be split," he's announced. "That's kind of a spiritual thing."
But the whole mess is pretty damn depressing. So the tone is likely to be solemn again this year as we line up at the dump. But line up we will. For we're American patriots too, in our individual and contrary ways. We're determined even though any liberal ballots we cast might as well be refuse. We'll brave the mud that we trudge through to get to the trailer to register our stubborn and tenacious faith in the whole enterprise.
Susan Swetnam is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn. org). She teaches at Idaho State University and lives south of Pocatello, Idaho.