Annisquam Lighthouse Gloucester, Massachusetts (Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism)
Kirstin Elaine Martin woke up Wednesday, November 9, in a state of shock. What she’d heard the night before — that Donald Trump had won the election — it didn’t make any sense to her.
She couldn’t believe he had won it. But she could believe he had stolen it.
Outside, rain clouds hung gray and heavy over the seaside town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, as if the heavens themselves were waiting to see what was to come. But Kirstin was not the sort of person to sit around and wait. In 1983, when she was a first-year student at the University of Kansas, and smirking College Republicans told her that there was “no such thing” as a College Democrats group on campus, she didn’t complain — she started one. Since then, she had founded two marketing companies, learned five languages, and defended herself in two lawsuits — winning both. She had raised her children to be citizens of the world, and it had worked: Her son is now a marine, her daughter a world traveler.
When Donald Trump was declared the next president of the United States, Kirstin didn’t get depressed or despondent — she got involved. She threw herself into Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s recount effort (though she had been, very much, Ready for Hillary). When the recount failed to yield a different result in Wisconsin and was blocked by the courts in Michigan and Pennsylvania, she looked into trying to flip Electoral College electors, giving up only when they revealed themselves to be unflippable. Though her friends started saying things like “time to move on,” Kirstin would not be swayed. She knew the solution was out there, she just had to find it.
About a month later she was listening to the radio — WOL AM1450 (“Where Knowledge Is Power”) — when something caught her ear. One of the guests that day was talking about how the Russians had hacked the election and Americans deserved a revote. The guest was a woman named Jerroll Sanders, an entrepreneur, police reform expert, and the author of a book called The Physics of Money: If You’ve Got My Dollar, I Don’t.
This wasn’t about Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, Jerroll Sanders told listeners. It was about the process. It was about America. Kirstin hadn’t thought of it like that. She found the woman’s number and called her up. “OK,” she said. “So what are we going to do about it?”
The two women talked for a long time. They had a lot in common; both ran their own businesses, both had been involved in politics, both were deeply disturbed by the results of the election. But they had differences as well: Jerroll was almost ten years older than Kirstin, for one, and the years had made her more reflective, if no less spitfire. Jerroll was critical of Hillary Clinton for not having done enough for the communities she claimed to represent — particularly communities of color. Jerroll was black, Kirstin was white. The two women did not agree on everything (and never would), but by the time the conversation ended, they did agree on three fundamental things: 1. The 2016 U.S. election was hacked by Russia. 2. Democracy was in jeopardy. 3. Since nobody else was going to fix it, they had no choice but to do it themselves.
On December 17, some 2,000 miles away in Denver, Colorado, Dr. Kelly Sennholz woke with a feeling of dread. It wasn’t a new feeling — it had been like this every day since the election — but it wasn’t getting any better, either. She wrapped herself in a robe, made herself a cup of coffee with milk, and settled down to check Twitter. The news that day was particularly bad: Multiple sources were reporting that the FBI and the CIA agreed that Russia had intervened in the U.S. election to benefit Donald Trump. This can’t just happen, she thought.
Somebody had to do something, and it might as well be her. Kelly had always held this attitude, captured in her motto, “If not me, then who?” It was how she had worked her way through medical school as a single mother and how she had gotten a domestic violence bill passed by the Tulsa City Council with nothing but willpower. It was how she had managed to handle the stress of being an emergency room physician and serving as assistant treasurer of the New Hanover-Pender County Medical Society. Though she’d retired from practicing medicine full-time when she moved to Denver some fifteen years earlier, she was still always busy, filling in at ERs when they were understaffed, managing rental properties, and communing with the 60,000 people who followed her on Twitter.
She needed a lawyer, she thought. An expensive one. Kelly didn’t know exactly what the lawyer would do, but she figured that a good enough lawyer ought to be able to do something.
So she went to GoFundMe.com and clicked on the large orange button in the middle of the page that said “Start a Campaign.” The goal? $4 million. The purpose? To nullify the 2016 election. Then she tweeted out a link — and waited.
In the days after the election, New York City was quiet. In the subway, strangers sat, numb and empty, trapped beneath a blanket of grief. The same was true in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and Portland. A hollow dread spread through the cities, passed from person to person, over and over and over again, back and forth, like gas trapped in a jar.
Almost immediately, reports of hate crimes began to surface. On November 9, students carrying Trump signs walked through the halls of York County School of Technology in Pennsylvania shouting “White Power!” On November 10, a 21-year-old man drove his truck through a peaceful protest on the University of Central Missouri campus. On November 11, a high school teacher in Georgia received a note telling her that her headscarf wasn’t allowed anymore. “Why don’t you tie it around your neck and hang yourself with it?” the note suggested. It was signed, “America.”
Online spaces created to celebrate Hillary’s imminent victory turned overnight into virtual memorials for the dreams of an entire generation. Think pieces proliferated. People protested in the streets. In Los Angeles, dissidents burned the president-elect in effigy.
For progressive women, Hillary’s loss was painful, frustrating, and unexpected — like getting punched in the nose while playing peek-a-boo with a baby. But far worse than Hillary’s loss was Trump’s win: Trump, who bragged about grabbing women by their genitals; Trump, who’d had three wives; Trump, who insulted women with such audacity that it would have almost been amusing, if it didn’t seem to resonate with so many men in red hats.
Matt Lundqvist is a clinical social worker in New York City. He said that in the weeks following the election, he saw many clients at his Tribeca office who exhibited symptoms of a deep psychological pain. “It’s important to appreciate that there are many different kinds,” he says. “There is a certain kind of emotional trauma for relatively privileged progressives that is very real.”
Lundquist works with his clients to understand and accept the ways in which they are powerless — and the ways they are not.
“Participation is good and healthy,” he says. “Political protest in most of its forms is incredibly healing. It’s an expression of power, creating hope, literally getting out and doing something.”
Over the course of November and December, liberals slowly worked their way through the stages of grief. They took to the streets in cities across America, protesting the man who had been elected, and the country he would represent. They bargained with themselves (move to Canada? Maybe not, but definitely renew the old passport). They grieved — for their Muslim neighbors and undocumented children, for gay adoptive parents and the millions who would soon be uninsured. They grieved the illusion of a forward-thinking nation that Barack Obama had so skillfully painted for them, and the dream of a land where people would be judged on the content of their character, not the contents of their bank account. They grieved for themselves, for their blindness and optimism, for their ignorance and stupidity and failure and loss. They grieved for the world they had known and the dreams that they had had. Over time they came to accept that it was just a dream, and the time had come to wake up.
But Kelly and Kirstin and Jerroll did not grieve or bargain or accept. They held onto the world that existed before the election — the world in which racism was a dirty word and sexual assault a disqualifying offense. They stayed in that world — where people play by the rules, and fairness counts, and Americans are good-hearted people. They stayed outraged, and they got busy.
It didn’t take long for Kirstin to find Kelly’s GoFundMe.
“Who’s this whack job asking for $4 million for a lawyer?” she thought (the fund had raised just $458 at that point). She decided to do a little digging. It turned out the whack job was actually an ER doctor out in Colorado — a real person who had used her real name on the GoFundMe site. Kirstin was impressed. She called up Kelly and invited her to join what they were now calling the Revote team. Kelly agreed on the spot.
From the beginning, the three women agreed that the best way forward was through the legal system. “I just felt like this was a question for the highest court in the land,” Jerroll said.
They needed a lawyer but were having a terrible time finding one to take the case. They had called an astonishing number — Kirstin puts it at twenty, Jerroll at many times that — and every single one had turned them down.
Jerroll offered to take a crack at writing the brief herself. She had experience from the years she’d spent writing police reform legislation aimed at reducing police brutality against the African-American community. She wasn’t an attorney, but she did have what she called “a strong penchant for law.” One of her friends, a Harvard-educated lawyer, called her “Counselor,” even.
Jerroll figured out a way to make the argument by way of an obscure section of the Constitution known as the Guarantee Clause. “The United States,” it reads, “shall guarantee every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion.” What was a cyber-attack like the one the Russians had executed against the United States if not an invasion? The fact that the clause had never been successfully invoked, and that the Supreme Court had ruled the clause “non-justiciable” (literally not the sort of thing the courts had jurisdiction to rule on), did not deter Jerroll and the others in the slightest. Everything about this election was unprecedented. Who knew what was justiciable these days?
They decided they would file a special sort of petition for something called a Writ of Mandamus (Latin for “we command”), asking the court to mandate a new election. But since court cases can take years to be heard and decided, and Trump was going to be inaugurated in a little over a month, they also decided to file a motion requesting that the nation hold off on the inauguration while the court ruled on their case.
The trio kept busy during the weeks leading up to Christmas, calling and reading and working and talking (by their estimate) between eighteen and twenty hours a day. They spent hours on the phone with politicians and intelligence officials and scholars and historians and celebrities and journalists and one another. “We had conference calls where we would have to hang up and start over because we realized everyone was just talking over one another all at once,” Kelly says with a laugh.
The approach was haphazard, but it seemed to be working. People started to come out of the woodwork, wanting to help: “Mostly women, and a few good men,” Kirstin liked to say. There was Helen Garland, a 91-year-old Gloucester resident who read about the group in the local newspaper and called to volunteer her services. “I thought I was going to have to stop the inauguration by myself,” she told them. Her beautiful old ramshackle home overlooking Gloucester Harbor would become the base of operations for the Revote team. There was Donna Soodalter-Tooman, Diane Blumstein, and Nancy Goodman, Massachusetts women who volunteered to serve as plaintiffs in the suit; Mitchell Rabin, a progressive radio show host, who volunteered early on to proofread, edit, and write letters to politicians; Rosie O’Donnell, stand-up comedian-turned-Trump punching bag, who contributed $10,000 to the team’s GoFundMe; and plaintiffs’ attorney Jan Schlictman, whose lawsuit against chemical companies in the 1980s inspired the award-winning book A Civil Action, which later became a movie starring John Travolta. Schlictman was one of several attorneys who lent advice to the team but declined to serve as counsel.
They bought a domain and set up a website — Revote.info. Donations continued to trickle into Kelly’s GoFundMe, bringing the total to a little over $3,000.
On January 5, they filed the motion and petition in Massachusetts. Versions of the same were filed in Colorado and California. Kelly and Jerroll put their names down in the Colorado action; friends and friendly strangers loaned their names to the California action. Kirstin wanted to put hers on the Massachusetts case but held off for her husband, who is an introvert and asked her not to. Blumstein, the lead plaintiff in the Massachusetts case, was chosen because she answered her phone at the right time and was available to run the petition down to the courthouse. To pay the filing fee of $500, she had to dip into her Hanukkah money.
More than anything, the project reminded Kelly of the old folk tale “Stone Soup.” A poor, hungry traveler with nothing but a rock will starve. But if he can convince someone to let him borrow a pot, and someone else to contribute onions, and someone else carrots and meat and greens and salt, eventually he’ll have a delicious soup for the whole town.
“That’s what this project is, it’s stone soup,” Kelly would later say, one late night in Helen’s den.
“We’re not tied to a particular solution,” Kirstin added.
“It’s about the soup,” said Kelly.
All three women were aware of the potential negative effects of even a best-case scenario: If the court were to grant a revote, and a revote were to occur, Donald Trump could easily be re-elected president all over again. Or, worse, he could refuse to participate in a revote, crippling the judicial branch forever, and de facto installing a dictatorship. It could trigger economic collapse; it could trigger civil war.
The Revote team accepted this possibility with unblinking stoicism.
“I see why people are afraid. I get it. But I am concerned that we have turned into a country of cowards,” Kelly said.
“It’s better to live in reality, even if it’s a painful reality,” said Kirstin.
The contours of this particular reality were blurred by a paradox: While they accepted the chilling conceit that underlay their claim, namely that American institutions had failed on the most basic level, they turned to these same institutions seeking redress.
Similarly, while they viewed the American government as weak at best and nefarious at worst, they drew strength from the idea of a nation in which anyone could change the course of history by standing up for what she believed. They aligned themselves with any number of firebrands from American history — from Martin Luther King to the abolitionist Grimke sisters, all the way back to the founding fathers themselves — fearless people who refused to accept the terms of the world as they received them.
On January 6, they got news: A Massachusetts district court had dismissed their case, citing the non-justiciability standard. But there was one line in the dismissal that read like a gift from God: “Petitioner cites no precedent legitimately supporting her novel constitutional claim.”
The Revote team was ecstatic. Novel constitutional claims were one of the categories of cases that the Supreme Court was interested in. Their claim was so novel, they thought, that there hadn’t been any precedent to cite!
Immediately, they got to work writing the appeal brief. But right away there were hurdles. Despite their best efforts, they still could not find an attorney to take their case. And, for reasons that remained unclear to them, their story had not yet been picked up by Rachel Maddow, or even Amy Goodman. Worse, on the websites where it had been featured, it garnered nasty comments from liberals and conservatives alike, who dismissed it as frivolous and harebrained.
As the owner of the GoFundMe, Kelly received death threats. Being Kelly, she brushed them off, finding solace in the fact that the only one who seemed serious lived several states away.
There was beginning to be trouble between the partners, as well: Jerroll felt that she had done the heavy lifting in terms of the legal strategy and wanted control over the composition of the appeal petition. Kelly saw it as a collaborative effort and continued to offer editorial suggestions, much to Jerroll’s frustration. Once the appeal papers were written, there was another hurdle: printing them according to the Court’s exacting specifications. Both the petition and the motion would need to be printed on unglazed, opaque paper, not less than sixty-pound weight. They would need to be bound together into booklets that were 6 1/8 by 9 1/4 inches (saddle stitch or perfect binding preferred). Only text typed in the Century family would be accepted —12 point, 2 points or more between lines. Each filing type had a different cover color requirement. There were strict word limits. And the court required forty copies of everything — no more, no less.
They had no choice but to use a legal printer, who would charge thousands of dollars. They began casting about for one, knowing that every minute drew the inauguration closer—and with it, the likelihood that their effort would come too late.
A week before the inauguration they found a printer who would take their job. But then the named plaintiffs, who had been concerned all along about proceeding without an attorney, insisted that the final brief be formally reviewed by a professional.
Jerroll was incensed. She had been working for days and nights on end because no attorney would agree to represent them. Now they wanted an attorney to review her work?
Kirstin and Kelly agreed with the plaintiffs that it couldn’t hurt to have an attorney look over the brief, and arranged for one to do so, overruling Jerroll. Then, a whole mess of bad luck: On Friday, Jerroll sent the wrong version of the document to the printer and wasn’t able to send the correct one until the following Monday. That Monday, Kelly, whose credit card was on the line, told the printer to go ahead and print what they had. But Jerroll had continued making tweaks over the weekend and had not yet sent over the most recent version. When Jerroll found out about Kelly’s call, she called the printer herself and told them not to print — threatening legal action if they did. The flip-flopping (and legal threat) caused the printer to pull out of the job entirely. With the clock ticking, the Revote team called a battery of other printers — including Kinko’s — before finding one who would take the job on and get it done in time.
On Tuesday morning, the motion to stay was printed and filed with Justice Stephen Breyer, but, somehow, the appeal petition for a Writ of Mandamus never made it to the court. The motion was denied the same day.
On Wednesday, January 18, the entire package was reprinted and submitted to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
On Thursday, January 19, Justice Ginsburg denied the motion but allowed the petition for Writ of Mandamus proceed. The inauguration would go forward, and so would their campaign for a revote.
On Friday, January 20, Donald Trump became the forty-fifth president of the United States.
About a month later, I was perusing Twitter listlessly when I saw something that caught my eye. Rosie O’Donnell had tweeted out a link that was getting a lot of attention, not all of it positive. It linked to a GoFundMe set up by a group of women in Massachusetts who had filed a lawsuit demanding a new election. I was curious.
Obviously, it was out there—a group of middle-aged ladies, none of them attorneys, trying to shame the government into doing its job? When I mentioned it to a constitutional attorney, he rolled his eyes and called it “just so dumb.” But there was something else about it, too, something about ordinary citizens feeling empowered to use the institutions that had been established for their benefit, something about democracy in action. Everybody was complaining about Trump. These women were trying to do something about it.
Soon enough I was on my way up to Gloucester.
A small town on Massachusetts’s Cape Ann, Gloucester is the oldest seaport in the country. Its place in history was written in 1775, when its fisherman and townspeople, armed with muskets and swivel guns, surprised a British sloop-of-war with their ferocious resistance. Now a city of 30,000, it’s an open-minded, Yankee sort of place that that went to Hillary Clinton by a twenty-five point margin.
I got in around five. Though the sun had not yet set, the wind was picking up. Across the street from the train station, nondescript buildings hosted a bagel shop, a pizzeria, and a thrift store called “Past Present Shoppe.” I called Kirstin and she answered on the first ring — with a question: “DID YOU SEE WE GOT SCHEDULED?” Earlier that day, it turned out, the Supreme Court website had put their case on its docket for March 17. At that point the petition would be “Distributed for Conference,” which is to say that the Justices (or, more likely, their clerks) would meet to discuss whether it presented a sufficiently novel and important constitutional question that they should put it before the nation’s highest court.
“We’re going out for lobster dinner to celebrate,” Kirstin said. “Gloucester style!”
Dinner was a whirl of chitchat and chowder. In attendance were Kirstin, Kelly (in from Denver), Helen Garland, and me. It wasn’t until later that I would think it odd that no one mentioned Jerroll.
Kirstin seemed to spend the entire meal talking — leaning over the table at me, green eyes sparkling under pub lights, like robin’s eggs in a dark moss thicket. “I knew intrinsically,” she said, that the election had been compromised. The thing that really got her was Michigan. “Clinton was up by ten points the week before the election, then here’s Trump on TV saying ‘I will win Michigan’” — like he hadn’t seen the polls, or he didn’t care. Kelly nodded along, sipping her drink.
“We’re both ENFP,” Kirstin told me (referring to their Meyers-Briggs personality types, characterized by Extraversion (E), Intuition (N), Feeling (F), Perception (P), commonly referred to as “the Campaigner”), but their approaches couldn’t be more different. While Kirstin is a whirling dervish — a mile a minute talker who often cuts in to tell other people’s stories for them — Kelly will stay quiet for entire stretches of time before making a single point, punctuated with piercing eye contact.
They’d spoken with experts, they said, constitutional authorities and intelligence officials — even stalking one constitutional expert to his hospital bed. They knew that the Guarantee clause was non-justiciable, but non-justiciability as a concept was itself justiciable. It was up to them to stick up for the Constitution.
“Sticking up for the Constitution might mean admitting that the Constitution has a bit fat hole in it,” Kirstin declared.
Kelly nodded. “We’re in the middle of a war.”
Kirstin told me how just two months before, the women had been perfect strangers. “Now we are soul sisters,” she said.
Throughout the meal, Helen sat quietly, looking off occasionally into the harbor. In a rare moment of silence near the end of dinner, she turned to the group and began to speak, about fathers and sons and wives who were taught to obey.
“It seems to me that we have a basic societal issue,” she said. “No one ever learned how to talk back to a bully.”
After dinner Kirstin whisked me off to a “bystander intervention training” for Gloucester locals who wanted to learn to be better allies to Muslims, people of color (the city is ninety-two percent white), and other vulnerable groups. The event was held at a local artists’ colony that was once a church. It was a lovely, homey sort of place with whitewashed walls, a pitched roof and many paintings of vegetables.
The crowd was very white, very female, and very crunchy. Though we arrived forty-five minutes late, they were still on introductions.
“I need to be with resisters right now,” one woman said in her introduction. Many remarked that the gathering reminded them of the “good old days,” which meant either ACT-UP or the anti-Vietnam movement, depending on who was speaking. When one participant declared that we were “moving into a police state,” the crowd nodded in agreement.
The moderator, a round and bubbly little woman in her mid-thirties, walked us through how to defuse a scenario based on a true story involving a verbal gay bashing at a Home Depot. We threw out suggestions for making our allyship known to the bash-ee — things like yelling at the manager, or taking out a cell phone and filming the whole thing. “If this could happen at a Home Depot,” someone said somberly, “it could happen anywhere.”
We learned about “pluralistic ignorance,” a phenomenon that explained why a great many people might witness something terrible without intervening because they assume, incorrectly, that someone else will. Kirstin nudged me and whispered loudly: “That’s this Trump thing.”
By then the crowd was getting restless — the training had been going on nearly two hours, and there were snacks and Pinot in the back. Right when I thought it was over, the moderator called Kirstin up to the stage to talk about the lawsuit. Kirstin smiled and took the floor.
She began to explain about how she and her team were suing the government, her voice a little higher than usual. I took the time to study the faces of those around me.
The change was subtle but perceptible — arms crossed, heads tilted back. Women with long gray braids decided it was a good time to check their email.
Kirstin paid them no heed. “First we need to understand that our election was stolen,” she said. “It has come to the attention of many people—seventeen intelligence agencies have agreed. So we, a citizens group–a grassroots organization led predominantly by women and a few good men—have filed a petition to the Supreme Court for an independent investigation.” She seemed to come to life before the crowd, her voice growing stronger with each word. It was as though all of the energy she carried around every day had finally found the space that it needed. “We filed a petition for a Writ of Mandamus asking the court to declare this election unconstitutional so that we can have a revote, so that we can have our democracy restored.”
I looked around again. The crowd had put their phones down and uncrossed their arms. There was something about what Kirstin was saying — the promise of action as a repository for this feeling they all had, this disgust and despair and anger. This woman was doing something. They wanted to do something, too. Kirstin went on. “This is an unprecedented constitutional crisis in which we find ourselves!” Gloucester had a history of patriotism, she reminded them.
“Yes, we need money,” Kirstin said, looking around the room. “But we need belief — mostly we need people to believe we can fix this.”
People were nodding. A few women murmured “yes” aloud, like we were in church. Finally, here was something to restore some of what they had lost, to give them just a bit of hope that one day it wouldn’t be like this anymore.
Kelly finished with the news that a conference had been scheduled at the Supreme Court for the next month. The crowd burst into applause.
Helen Garland lives in a massive ramshackle old house called Black Bess on Gloucester’s Eastern Point, surrounded by water on three sides. It’s a magical sort of house filled with old ship parts, cryptic handwritten notes, mysterious baubles, and more books than some libraries. It’s the sort of house that children in books get shipped off to for the summer, only to find themselves in the midst of some grand adventure. It was to Black Bess that we retired following the meeting, for cookies and updates on the case.
The conference was the biggest item of the day. The impulse was to take the fact that it had been scheduled as an indication that the court had chosen to hear the case. But Kelly, who’d been reading up on Supreme Court practices, set us straight.
When a case is “distributed for conference,” all that meant was that it would be reviewed by the justices for the first time. The justices (or their clerks) would read through stacks and stacks of briefs before the day was up, choosing only a handful to be heard. Of the nearly 8,000 cases that were filed each year with the Supreme Court, only about eighty, or one percent, are heard. The numbers didn’t discourage Kelly, though. She reminded me that every case had the same odds.
The team was also proud to announce that they had finally got themselves a lawyer — an Indiana appellate attorney named Mark Small. Small had actually contacted them, after hearing about the case from a colleague of his who had turned it down. After making sure he was not a spy, they accepted Small’s offer, officially retaining him that same day.
Eventually I had to ask about Jerroll Sanders. They hadn’t mentioned her once since I’d arrived, and it didn’t feel like an oversight.
Kirstin and Kelly exchanged a look. “We didn’t want to be associated with her any more…” Kirstin began.
“She was doing things that we didn’t want to be associated with any more,” Kelly said.
After that, they were vague. “She didn’t want to be part of the team,” Kirstin told me a bit later. “She was thinking about [the brief] as someone’s intellectual property — for us, it was about the team. You know when they say ‘it was created on company time’? We created this together.”
They wouldn’t say much more. We stayed at Helen’s house until well past midnight — talking about Russia, democracy, and what it means to be a woman in America.
Eventually it was time for bed. Kelly was flying out the next day, and I was catching an early train back to New York. We said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch.
I got back to the city the next day, still puzzling over what could have splintered the Revote team. Fortunately, there was one person who was willing to tell me what happened — Jerroll.
“Initially I was not even mentioning my name as the sole writer — because I am very much a team player,” Jerroll told me over the phone. She speaks slowly and clearly, disdaining contractions, like a schoolteacher or a politician. She had run for office once, actually — the mayor of Detroit — and had come in third (she did not trust the result of that election either).
She told me how, over the course of one twenty-four-hour period, she sat down and wrote every word of the petition for Writ of Mandamus. “I myself was surprised by what I had generated,” she said.
“Everyone said, ‘This is brilliant, this is beautiful!’” she remembered. But then things went awry: First the printing debacle, a veritable comedy of errors, then the plaintiffs’ last-minute insistence on having the brief reviewed by an attorney.
Jerroll began to suspect that Kirstin and Kelly had ulterior motives. “This is all about fame for them,” she said. She began to look for ways to control the process and stake some claim over the brief. When she started saying that she was the sole writer, things became contentious. Jerroll filed and was ultimately granted a copyright on the brief.
Vicious emails began to circulate, then radio silence. The next thing Jerroll knew, Kelly and Kirstin had made their own website, Revote2017.org, and officially de-linked the GoFundMe from Jerroll’s page — Revote.info. On the old Revote.info site, solid sans serif font told visitors how “Jerroll M. Sanders, legal strategist for a far-reaching citizen revote effort, looked at US law through a new lens.” On the new Revote2017.org, beneath a motif of drowning American flags reflected in Ray Ban sunglasses, a floating paragraph explained that: “Revote 2017 is a grassroots group of women and men from across the country, who are passionate about protecting our Democracy and the integrity of our electoral processes.”
The new site seemed to retell the story of a movement in which Jerroll never existed, her contribution redistributed, her memory erased. The only mention of her came several paragraphs down at the bottom of a case update:
Jerroll Sanders, a person who worked collaboratively with us on the Writ, has gone off on [sic] her own direction. She has done nothing further to support our case since the submission. We are not associated with her website and her activities in any way. We have not said anything prior to now as we do not want to distract from the importance of this case, but she is becoming a distraction.
Jerroll wrote an email to the group’s new attorney with the subject line CEASE AND DESIST. In it, she stated that she was the sole writer and that Kirstin and Kelly had defamed her by denying her claim. She demanded that the funds collected on Kelly’s GoFundMe based on her copyrighted materials be returned to her.
The letter she got back from their attorney, Mark Small, was terse and dismissive. He categorically denied her claims, ending with a flourish that seemed almost cruel, given the circumstances: “There is a lot of important work to be done in this case,” he wrote. “I would ask you leave my clients to perform that work.”
The day before, Jerroll had finished typing up the draft of another lawsuit. Instead of the federal government, this one named Kelly, Kirstin, and all the named petitioners as defendants. The suit demanded $5,000,000 in damages. Jerroll waited until she received a response from the Revote attorney — then, she filed it.
Both teams continued to campaign, separately, for the success of the petition. Kelly and Kirstin made a video about their effort in order to raise funds. Jerroll held a candlelight vigil for supporters of their petition outside the Supreme Court. The Facebook event showed that forty people were interested and twelve attended.
Jerroll feels no remorse for the split with Kirstin and Kelly. “They mixed the mud, if I have to get my shoes a little dirty by walking in it for the American people then I will,” she said. She feels that it is her patriotic duty to stand up for the brief, which she believes has little chance without her. She thinks their new attorney, Mark Small, is incompetent, and that his efforts have hampered the case’s chances before the court. Small, for his part, questions Jerroll’s motives and scoffs at her lawsuit. He correctly points out that it will be difficult for her to lay claim to the legal brief without admitting to practicing law without a license.
“You want to claim you wrote these things?” he said to me over the phone when I asked about Jerroll. “Then go to law school.”
I didn’t want to prod Kirstin or Kelly about it too much—the whole thing made me feel weird and bad. I had my doubts about the revote effort, of course, but the women had won me over with their stubborn optimism, their resilience, their Stone Soup. Seeing that same stubbornness turned against one another made the whole thing feel hollow.
I wanted to believe in something. I wanted to believe in the process. I wanted to believe in Kelly and Kirstin and Jerroll, that they would find strength in their diversity — that they would find in their commitment to resistance, a commitment to one another. But maybe they didn’t. Maybe that was OK.
Maybe the division was the inevitable result of a collaboration between three people whose dreams burned so brightly that they thought they must make them real.
The news reached each of them individually the Monday after the conference. Kelly heard about it secondhand, from the disembodied voices of Twitter.
It appeared as part of a massive, impersonal list posted on the Supreme Court site. Sandwiched betweens tens of other names and numbers of cases, they found the petition for Writ of Mandamus #16–907. It had been denied without comment.
That day, headlines declared that the FBI had admitted it was investigating possible connections between President Trump and the Kremlin.
Jerroll’s website was updated almost immediately with big orange letters splashed across the waving red white and blue. “THE SUPREME COURT HAS DENIED THE CASE — BUT WE ARE STILL FIGHTING TO PRESERVE OUR DEMOCRATIC PROCESS.” Though she offered no explanation of how the fight would continue, the font itself read as a declaration of intent.
Kirstin wasn’t answering phone calls that day—a rarity for her—but that evening she sent out an email to friends and supporters. “Hi everyone,” she wrote. “We got word today that our Writ of Mandamus #16–907 got denied with no comment.” The petition was flawed, she went on, but the next one would be better now that they had an attorney. She had booked Mark Small on a radio show at 10 p.m. EST, and urged everyone on the email to tune in. Jerroll was not mentioned.
I sat in my kitchen that night and listened for a bit. Eventually I turned it off, assuming I’d missed him. The next morning, another email from Kirstin explained the confusion. Small had fallen asleep shortly before the show began.
I spoke with Kelly a few weeks later to see where the campaign would go next and was surprised when she told me she was no longer involved. “After the petition was denied, I bugged out, I quit,” she told me. She still believed in the petition, she said, but the group was too much for her. “Kirstin was getting very anxious,” she explained. “I would like to have had a more orderly process.”
“What happened?” I asked, taken aback. “I thought you two were soul sisters?”
She let out a low chuckle. “Oh, I know she told you that,” she said.
Kirstin has been difficult to reach since the petition, but each time we email she hints at something new. A few weeks ago she told me that “miracles [were] happening,” but did not offer details. Most recently she gave me the link to yet another website: ReVote2017.net. They will be relaunching, she says.
The petition has been officially marked dismissed on the Supreme Court website — but Jerroll’s lawsuit for defamation is still pending.
Kelly says that all of the $29,283 raised on the GoFundMe has been spent. $10,249 to taxes, $4,500 to the attorney, the rest to printing costs.
When asked if she would do it again, the whole wild ride, she has to think for a moment. “I would not have joined up with that team,” she says, then pauses. “But nobody else was out there, talking about it!”
Doing it really helped, she said. “It gave me something to focus on — it gave me something to do.” These days she’s got other things to do: Just that morning she went to a town hall and yelled at her senator. She thinks she might make it a weekly thing.
“I hope people won’t be discouraged by the loss,” she says, of the petition. “You don’t win everything in politics. That doesn’t mean you lose.”