–Nick Hagen for The Washington Post

On what would become one of his final days on Earth, James Wendel Williams heaved his too-thin body to City Hall in defiance of the cancer that had left him largely homebound. He was determined to cast a ballot in the 2020 election.

Resolve was not an issue. Neither was indecision.

The problem was timing.

For months, Williams, 77, had watched the calendar from his home in Birmingham, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, increasingly worried that he would not live long enough to vote. As his health deteriorated with each passing week, he and his family knew it was becoming less and less likely that he would make it to Election Day.

They set their sights instead on the first day of early voting, Sept. 24. At times, even that had felt unlikely.

Now, with his son and daughter-in-law at his side like guardrails, he took the final steps to the official ballot drop box, intent on placing it in himself. He moved slowly, his face straining from the effort. His son, David, hovered close, in that tentative way sons of elderly parents do — to keep him from falling.

Williams flashed a smile after the ballot fell in. A triumph.

“I think the state of things is cause of concern for all of us. That’s why I wanted to be sure to get here and vote,” he told a photojournalist who happened upon the scene.

When Williams found out earlier this year that his colon cancer had returned, he made the decision not to pursue further treatment and eventually to enter hospice care. He talked with his family about “dying a death with dignity,” recounted David, one of his two sons. The family had long, thoughtful conversations about “being able to die on your own terms,” David recalled.

Politics was not Williams’s entire life. His family was. He and his wife, Marva, were married 55 years and toasted “to another night of the good life” every evening, his son remembered. A longtime estate planner, he loved basketball and all kinds of music. Fifteen years ago, after his parents died, he moved back into the house where he grew up in Birmingham. David lived next door and they saw each other multiple times a day.

But even as Williams worked through what it would mean to die, he thought often about the election, the chaos gripping the country.

He was a Democrat but not a partisan, said his son David.

Nonetheless, Williams felt President Trump was toxic. He was especially angry over the president’s suggestion that he would not accept the results of an election if he lost.

If only he could stay alive long enough to do something about it.

If only enough people did something about it.

By the time September came around, Williams thought if he could make it to the end of the month, he would be able to cast an early vote by mail, which Michigan election law makes accessible to everyone. Debra Horner, his daughter-in-law, began to call the city clerk’s office to figure out when absentee ballots would be sent out.

She was able to arrange to have his ballot waiting at City Hall on the very first day of early voting, so he could fill it out in the car and drop it off right away.

“He could get out of bed on his own and walk on his own, but it was very difficult,” recounted David. But “when the day came, he said, ‘I can get out of bed, I can get in the car, and we can go up there.’ ”

Sitting in Horner’s minivan, Williams took a long time filling out his ballot. His son, who drove, remembers he was very, very careful to fill the squares fully to ensure it would be counted.

Williams wanted to make the 15-foot walk himself, rather than have one of his kids drop off the ballot. He had lost 40 pounds. But he insisted on trying.

“He was really happy to tell people he had lived long enough to vote,” David remembered.

He died eight days later.

After he was gone, Williams’s family learned his final vote would not be counted under Michigan law. Votes are tallied on Election Day in the state, not as they arrive. Because Williams died before Election Day, his vote would be invalidated. About 850 such ballots had been rejected for the same reason during Michigan’s primary election in August, according to the secretary of state’s office.

His son, David, took a long, deep breath when he heard.

Did that change what his effort had meant for the Williams family? Was there still something to learn from it?

“It’s not that he thought his vote was going to change the election. He believed it was important as an example to his children and grandchildren,” he added. “The way you use your energy, particularly when you don’t have much left, that is a very true reflection of what you really care about.”

Nick Hagen in Birmingham, Mich., contributed to this report.


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