On a hot summer’s day, a lover of crime fiction can curl up with compelling characters, and challenging plot twists, trying their hand at cracking a case. When the crimes in question are assaults on voting rights, the stories take on added dimensions: engaging readers in questions about race, power and democracy. Low Down Dirty Vote is a series of crime fiction anthologies that shines a spotlight on voter suppression in all its diabolical forms. Released in May, Volume III: The Color of My Vote features 22 stories from a diverse group of crime writers. Each writer explores the ways in which voter suppression tactics target communities of color. Volume III raises money for Democracy Docket, a media platform that draws attention to voter suppression and supports voting rights campaigns.
According to series contributor Jackie Ross Flaum, “Writers have always used their art to wake up readers, to alert them to problems, and move them to action. That’s why authoritarians burn books and regulate what goes into libraries.”
Convergence reached out to the editor and few of the contributing writers to learn more about the series.
Series Editor Mysti Berry talks about the origins of Low Down Dirty Vote:
I was sitting in a diner with my husband, feeling sad that this institution I always took for granted, representative democracy, was under assault. When the title for the series, Low Down Dirty Vote popped into my head, I couldn’t turn back.
Democracy needs our help! I could have just donated money. Bringing a couple of dozen new stories into the world is also an important way to raise awareness and support the cause. The series offers a twofer that supports democracy and celebrates the many different voices in crime fiction.
I believe that stories can reach around our habitual beliefs, our petty quarrels, our “my team” orientation and make us ask hard questions. I want to reach everyone and anyone who loves a good crime story and values democracy.
Bev Vincent, who contributed the story, “Kane’s Theory,” talks about how he got involved with the series:
I grew up in Canada and was only casually interested in politics. I had no strong affiliation, sometimes voting for the Conservative party and sometimes for the Liberals. Politics is more localized in the Canadian system—you vote only for your local Member of Parliament (or MLA at the provincial level), not for the Prime Minister or Premier.
For the first twenty-plus years I lived in the US, I couldn’t vote—I was a resident alien. In 2012, I decided to become a citizen, in large part so I could vote for President Obama’s re-election. While I had been interested in previous elections (and upset by the way the 2000 election was decided), there was finally an adult in the room, and he was of my generation—only a couple of months younger than me. I was thrilled to be able to support Obama and vote against (alas, unsuccessfully) some of the less admirable people running things in Texas.
When things went south in 2016, I decided it was time to do more than vote. I had to speak up. Although the conventional wisdom is that writers shouldn’t take a public stand on controversial subjects because we risk alienating a faction of our readership, it was a risk I needed to take. It was no longer a case of general philosophical differences—the checks and balances system I’d studied in school and in preparation for my naturalization interview proved to be ineffective when the “system” was run by untrustworthy people and democracy was in jeopardy. I took to Twitter and made it clear where I stood. And, you know what? If I lost a few followers and a few potential readers, I gained many, many more to replace them.
Getting involved in Low Down Dirty Vote
When I saw the call for submissions for the second volume in the series, which had a theme of stolen votes, I decided to use my series private investigator, Benjamin Kane. He’s like a public defender in that he occasionally accepts clients with whom he profoundly disagrees. In that earlier story, “Kane and the Candidate,” he was hired by an embarrassed Republican who discovered someone had used his identity to cast a vote in the opposite party’s primary, so there was a bit of schadenfreude involved.
For the third volume, editor Mysti Berry reached out to previous contributors and the timing was perfect. I was incensed by the way the right was using trumped-up (I hesitate to use that word but, boy, isn’t it appropriate?), deceptive outrage to suppress minorities and protect the status quo. In particular, I was angry about the way they had conscripted the advanced academic study of Critical Race Theory, using it to discredit anything that might make white people uncomfortable with this country’s racist history. I gave Kane a client who wanted him to prove a Black high school English teacher was teaching CRT. Kane, like me, is an older white dude, a member of the privileged class, so he wasn’t a good candidate to explain CRT. Rather than have him investigate surreptitiously, I sent him straight to the source, meeting the teacher and asking him the question bluntly. This gave me the chance to talk about what CRT is and what it isn’t. Then I wondered—how does this story end? If Kane tells his client that his suspicions are unfounded, the client will try to find another way to discredit the teacher. So, I decided to use another recent event to make sure the client would have troubles of his own to deal with rather than trying to cause problems for others! I remember Mysti’s immediate response to “Kane’s Theory.” She said, “Wow! That story blisters and I did not see the end coming,” which was exactly what I was shooting for.
Using Crime Fiction to Fight Voter Suppression
I understand this story isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind. These anthologies are, to a certain extent, preaching to the choir, but they are raising money for much-needed charities who are doing the work required to protect our democracy. These stories are also a way to humanize and personalize some big concepts, like voter disenfranchisement, by showing the effects they have on real individuals.
The thing about writing mysteries is that you can use them to address just about any topic that’s near and dear to you. Your characters have opinions, which they can express either through words or deeds. The stories take place during a time of stress and conflict, so beliefs can be scrutinized, tested, and revised. The sky’s the limit! Also, mysteries don’t always have to be about murder most foul. As with my two stories in the Low Down Dirty Vote anthologies, they can explore other kinds of crimes or supposed wrongdoings that don’t rise to the level of a criminal investigation.
David Haggerty, author of the story “City Mourns Slain Pol, Chicago Style,” shares the inspiration for his contribution to Volume III:
Growing up in Chicago, I heard a lot about corrupt politics and fraudulent voting. My hometown is notorious for floaters (partisans who hit many polling places), repeaters, and dead voters, not to mention four-legged voting (a partisan who accompanies you to the polls to ensure you pull the right levers) and hobo float vote (leading inebriates to the polls by one shaky hand with the promise of a free drink). Today, we face a different challenge: coordinated efforts to suppress the vote, through voting restrictions, gerrymandering and other dirty tricks.
My story and this volume are a protest against voter restrictions. As we’ve all been reading, many states and politicians are working to restrict access to voting by mail and increase the identification required for voting. Not coincidentally, these changes would disenfranchise low-income voters and people of color. I believe we should encourage everyone to vote, regardless of their income, race, or party affiliation.
Getting involved in the book project
I became involved with the first edition of Low Down Dirty Vote (in 2017) as a result of the Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Subsequent to that, the states where voting rights were previously enforced are now finding new, creative ways to prevent people from accessing elections. It’s no coincidence that those largely Southern states are leading the way in voting restrictions then and now, proving the importance of an impartial enforcer during elections.
Raising Awareness Through Crime Fiction
Our ideal readers like crime fiction and have an interest in politics. Our intents are not partisan, nor are they to preach, merely to point out the dark deeds committed by those who want to gain and retain power.
Fiction allows us to reflect on a reality rarely shown in news reports. Not all political fights are waged in a capitol building, nor on a televised debate. Many occur off camera and behind the scenes where voters can’t see them. We hope to shine a light on those dark corners in hopes that illumination can kill the spreading contagion of disenfranchisement.
Contributing to the Anthology
My story is based on the last political assassination in Chicago’s history. Alderman Ben Lewis was executed in his office two days after his reelection to the City Council. Ben was an African-American with ambitions to get jobs and influence for the residents of his ward, who were historically ignored by Chicago’s political machine. After Ben’s death, rumors abounded about who’d want to kill him and way. Theories ranged from a jealous husband to a territorial gambler, but the truth may be even more sinister.
Advice for Readers Who Long to Write Mysteries
Read a lot of them. The best way to learn about a genre is to immerse yourself in it. Then set aside an hour a day to put words on paper––500 per session. At that rate, you’ll have a complete novel in 6 months and a finished book in a year, which is how the pros do it. For short stories such as this, you could finish a draft in just a week, which is often the hardest part.
For me, finishing the first draft always feels like a victory. No matter how bad it may be, things can only get better.