Voting Irregularities

My dad and I talked this weekend about the upcoming election and our dread of the debacle that will no doubt take place. The race will be close, and the country’s I’d say more divided than it was even four years ago. On top of that, there are all sorts of problems across the country with voting machines and regulations pertaining to voting. My dad suggested that the Democrats are untrustworthy when it comes to elections, citing voter fraud in Chicago that got Kennedy elected, among other cases. And he expressed displeasure at the fact that Democrats are mobilizing thousands of lawyers to try to contest the election regardless of how big Kerry’s margin of loss (if he loses) is. In short, he views this as a Democratic attempt to steal the election. Whether that’s the intention or not I can’t say. Maybe it is, and if so, shame on them. I’d like to propose that there are other valid reasons for oversight, however, mostly having to do with a history of disenfranchisement of Democratic voters. A claim like that requires examples. All of these come from the November issue of Harper’s (admittedly a liberal magazine) with sources cited appropriately therein.

In Florida, the center of the last presidential election’s most problematic disenfranchisement issues, very little has changed for the better. Florida didn’t learn its lesson, or, because the outcome was pleasing to Governor Jeb Bush, a lesson was in fact taken to heart in spite of the damage it does to the democratic process. Election equipment is at the heart of voting issues in Florida. In richer, whiter communities, voting machines are equipped to allow voters to confirm their selections prior to submitting the vote. In poorer, blacker communities, such confirmation opportunities are much less abundant. In 2001, a committee appointed by Governor Bush recommended that paper ballots, together with scanners in the voting booths (which had been successful in Leon County) be instituted for the entire state. And although fancy computer voting mechanisms cost eight times more than and are more problematic than the system implemented in Leon County, the Governor’s Select Task Force on Elections Procedures opted for the computer systems instead. Says Harper’s: “Based on the measured differential in vote loss between paper and computer systems, the fifteen counties in Florida using touch-screen systems can expect to lose at least 29,000 votes to spoilage on Election Day — some 27,000 more than if the counties were to use paper ballots with scanners. Given the demographics of spoilage, this translates into a net lead of thousands for Bush before a single ballot is cast.” Don’t forget that Bush “won” Florida by some 500 votes four years ago. Further, in 2000, Florida disenfranchised thousands of supposed felons (325 of whose listed felonies occurred in the future). Many who attempted to correct their mistaken identities were forced to request pardons from Jeb Bush for crimes they hadn’t committed, among other things, in order to right the record. It’s awful when voters try to game the system, but it’s so astonishingly much worse when officials are gaming the system.

There’s been much controversy over direct-recording-electronic (DRE) voting. In a nutshell, many voting machines being used in the upcoming election provide no receipt of a person’s vote. There’s no printout, in other words, and thus no way to account for all the votes. If a voting machine is programmed to tally votes incorrectly, there’s no way to go back and see a valid record of the votes. And while recounts can be performed based on the data tabulated by the machine, the results will always be the same because it’s a recount of the data as entered into or manipulated by the machine rather than a recount of actual votes. Because the voting machines use closed standards, there’s no way to guarantee, or even to increase the likelihood of, honesty. Moreover, at least two vendors (Election Systems and Software and Diebold Election Systems) of election software used on many of the machines have strong partisan ties with guess which party. “8 to 9 million votes will be tabulated in computers provided by Diebold, whose CEO, Walden O’Dell, caused a scandal by declaring he would help deliver his home state, Ohio, to George W. Bush.” Fully one third of the votes that are likely to be cast this year will be unrecountable because they’ll be cast on these systems. Harper’s further breaks the problems down in states key to this year’s election. Most directly relevant to me is the following passage:

I asked the elections administrator in Knoxville, a fellow named Greg Mackay, what he would do if there were a close election this year. “Shit, I’d go home and get drunk!” he said. “No, we could run the cartridges through again.”

“‘Course,” he added, “you’d get the same result…. It’d be the same damn thing.”

So far, the problems I’ve discussed can be (though musn’t necessarily be) chalked up to system problems rather than directed attempts by crooked Republicans to steal the election. More heinous to me are deliberate attempts to disenfranchise voters. This happens most frequently to the underprivileged, who often don’t know their rights, are in a poor position to learn about their rights, and are over-credulous of things that have the appearance of being official. Consider that Sharpton’s bid for the presidency this year was secretly financed and managed by one Roger Stone, a player in the Watergate scandal and a long-time G.O.P. backer. Harper’s alleges that Stone “helped script the preacher’s attacks on Howard Dean’s lack of black appointees and on the Democratic establishment’s neglect of minorities.” Now Sharpton’s at least as much at fault here as Stone, and I wouldn’t try to pin this on the Bush machine as an attempt at disenfranchisement, but it represents an attempt by the GOP to trick black voters into turning away from the Democratic party, and it sure stinks.

Consider some other examples from the past. From a phone call LBJ placed to Hubert Humphrey on election night in 1964:

Oh, Hubert, I wish you’d see what these sons of bitches have done. They’ve got out an instruction from the “Negro Protection League” [presumably a fake organization name] that says that any Negro that goes and votes — that the Protective League just wants to inform him, as their friend, that if he’d ever had a traffic ticket, if he’d ever been under suspicion, if he’d ever been speeding, if he’d ever had a parking ticket, if he’d ever hadn’t paid his taxes on time, if he’d ever been discharged from employment, that he’ll have to report right away to the sheriff, and that these things will have to be settled before he can clear his record to vote. And they put those out in all Southern cities — just the meanest, dirtiest, low-down stuff that I ever heard.

In 1962, William Rehnquist, working for Arizona’s Republican party, “supervised an operation in which local G.O.P. officials dressed up in police-like uniforms and stalled black voters, insisting they read the U.S. Constitution out loud before casting their ballot.” And “just before Election Day 2002, flyers went up in black neighborhoods in Baltimore advising residents not to vote until they had taken care of their parking tickets, overdue rent, ‘AND MOST IMPORTANT ANY WARRANTS.’ The flyers also included a friendly reminder to ‘come out to vote on Nov. 6th’ (The election was Nov. 5).” The examples go on and on. Now in many cases, disenfranchisement goes on at a local level and not as explicitly directed from a higher post, but it occurs nevertheless. The sad circumstance of sub-par voting equipment in poorer regions of Florida paired with a history of fraud perpetrated by local and state political engines directed at the same demographic points to big civil rights issues.

Given that the demographic affected by such circumstances tends to be Democratic, it hardly seems unreasonable that the Democrats would have crews of overseers handy for the election. Somebody’s got to look out for those who don’t know how to look out for themselves, who don’t know that it’s illegal to insist that they read the Constitution aloud prior to voting. If overseers are protecting rights, then their presence is valid and all but essential. Of course my dad may not have known any of this history and at any rate was probably predisposed (fair though he tends to be) to emphasize more heavily the reports of multiple Democratic voter registrations, the lawyering, etc. I can’t really blame him, given the facts he had reviewed, for crying foul, and before I read up on the matter any, I was ready to stand beside him and cry foul at what seemed an attempt on the Democrats’ part to engineer their desired election results. And that may be their aim, but given a sordid history of election engineering on the part of Republicans over past decades, I’m willing to grant for the sake of argument at least that the Democrats’ move may be a legitimate defensive move. Of course, it may not be. We can’t know.

There is a larger philosophical issue here, though. Something else my dad said was that Al Gore performed an act very destructive to our country by refusing to accept his defeat in 2000. I can’t help but think back here to my college reading of King Lear. One reading of that play is that the ill that befell Lear resulted from his ceding power. Kings are kings for life, and to cede power is to tamper with the order of things (recall that kings are divinely appointed). In Lear’s case, things went wildy wrong when he began to let his power be siphoned off. The idea is that if you’ve been given leadership, it’s your duty to embrace it.

The office of President of course is nothing like being king (for very good reasons). But there is a sense of duty in both cases. Specifically, if you believe you’ve been chosen as the leader, or that the process by which you’ve been chosen (or not) has been compromised, you have a duty to ensure that the process is reviewed. If you believe you may have won the presidency and you don’t contest it, you’re not just forfeiting a soccer match: You’re ceding the most powerful position in the world to someone whom you don’t believe the people intended to have that power. Which is a wildly and globally irresponsible thing to do. Moreover, it’s something that you do at a potential great personal and professional sacrifice. Al Gore’s never got another real shot at being president. I can understand the temptation to criticize Gore for pursuing lawsuits, etc., four years ago, but I’m not convinced it’s on target. He was doing what he thought was best for the country by attempting to enforce the rules of the democratic process, however ugly and self-interested that enforcement wound up looking.

So too, I would hope and tentatively argue, are the Democrats looking only to ensure that elections are fair and that they represent the will of the people. If it turns out that Bush wins by a margin that can’t reasonably be thought to have been influenced by crooked elections and the Democrats pursue litigation, I’ll stand beside the Republicans and cry foul. But if the election results can reasonably be questioned, I think it’s the responsibility of the Democrats (or of someone — Jimmy Carter is renowned globally for stepping in to promote fair elections outside the U.S., so election oversight isn’t something Americans are allergic to) to blow the whistle so that the intent of the people can be scutinized as best as possible (this is of course made more difficult by electronic voting machines) and honored.

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