No vote left behind

Or, how we learned to stop worrying about election scandals and focus on the president’s new puppy

Illustration By Don Button

OK, show-of-hands time: How many Americans were shocked—yes shocked!—by last week’s revelation that the Bush administration secretly had paid a media commentator a quarter of a million dollars to hype its No Child Left Behind Act? What’s incredible about that is not the realization that a media pundit would willfully ignore facts in order to line up behind the administration’s fanciful take on reality—hell, that’s been going on since the 2000 election. No, what’s surprising is that someone actually had to be bribed to do so at a time when so many others in the media find it very much in their own interest to provide this service for no extra charge.

Witness the media whitewash of the 2004 election scandal. Determined to convince the American people that no vote was left behind, our journalistic community has shown an uncanny ability to stay on message. Maybe that’s why the president’s new puppy got infinitely more publicity than the report released last week by the House Judiciary Committee Democratic staff, called “Preserving Democracy: What Went Wrong in Ohio.” This 102-page government report makes a convincing case not only for J. Kenneth Blackwell being the Katherine Harris of a new generation, but also for Ohio being an epicenter of national disgrace on a level not seen since its Kent State heyday.

The report cites “massive and unprecedented voter irregularities and anomalies in Ohio” that “raise grave doubts” about whether Ohio electors were “chosen in a manner that conforms to Ohio law, let alone federal requirements and constitutional standards.” In many cases, it concludes, “these were caused by intentional misconduct and illegal behavior, much of it involving Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, the co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio.”

Blackwell was the same guy who made pre-election news by deciding to reject all voter registrations that weren’t on 80-pound-weight paper. He also welcomed comparisons to one of Florida’s best-known Bush operatives: “The last time I checked, Katherine Harris wasn’t in a soup line,” Blackwell told Newsweek. “She’s in Congress.”

One of the most extraordinary charges in the Judiciary Committee report is that the voting-computer company Triad provided “cheat sheets” to Ohio’s recount election officials, telling them “how many votes they should find for each candidate and how many over and under votes they should calculate to match the machine count.” This, the report contends, enabled them to get away with just hand counting a 3-percent sample of the vote instead of the full countywide hand count that otherwise would be mandated by state law. (Ironically, the report says a number of counties that failed to pass the 3-percent test nevertheless managed to avoid doing a full recount.)

Want more? How about some 25 electronic voting machines in a single county miraculously transferring Kerry votes into the Bush column, uneven distribution of voting machines causing lines as long as 10 hours in predominantly Democratic and African-American areas, and Blackwell’s refusal of provisional ballots causing the “disenfranchisement of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of voters.”

The sad fact is that, in today’s 24-hour news cycle, yesterday’s “conspiracy theory” becomes tomorrow’s “old news.” So, who cares if an electronic voting machine really did manage to count 4,258 Bush votes in a precinct where only 638 people actually voted?

Well, Barbara Boxer, for one. The California senator’s unexpected decision to join Ohio Representative Stephanie Tubbs-Jones in a challenge to the state’s electoral vote last Thursday forced the House and Senate to retreat to separate chambers for a two-hour debate. Although speakers were limited to five minutes each, it was still an improvement over the previous Electoral College challenge, during which Congressional Black Caucus members repeatedly were gaveled to silence for asking a single senator to step forward and join the challenge.

Thursday’s Electoral College debate—the first of its type since 1877— drove home one critical fact: The Help America Vote Act is a failure. Enacted in December of 2002, the patronizingly titled legislation was touted as a way to prevent another Florida election debacle. Instead, it sped up the use of electronic voting machines while failing to address critical elements of electoral reform. H.R. 2239 and S. 1980, bills that would have required voting machines to produce a paper record, were blocked last year by Republican leaders. We cannot afford to hold another presidential election without enacting such safeguards.

Likewise, state election officials need to be held accountable to the voters instead of to the candidates whose presidential campaigns they’re currently allowed to chair. Blackwell’s bragging about helping to “deliver” Ohio electoral votes to George W. Bush eerily echoed Diebold Chairman Walden O’Dell’s 2003 pledge to do the same. (For more evidence of the need for a paper trail and other electoral reforms, the “Preserving Democracy” report can be found in its entirety at report.pdf.)

“Democracy is coming,” sang Leonard Cohen, “to the U.S.A.” What once seemed a bitterly ironic statement more than a decade ago now seems, somehow, to be bleakly hopeful. As does another Cohen line from the same prescient period: “There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

For two hours last Thursday, Boxer and a handful of House members managed to crack the code of silence surrounding an electoral system that is itself much in need of repair. In exchange, they were told to “get over it” and were accused of everything from a frivolous publicity stunt to a treacherous attempt to undermine our democratic process. The media rewarded Boxer’s and Tubbs-Jones’ expenditure of political capital by ignoring the report they sought to call attention to, at best giving it a few lines on the jump page of stories that all but characterized them as simply poor losers.

Freedom may or may not be on the march around the world, but democracy most definitely begins here at home. Winners or losers, all of us have a stake in ensuring that no voters are disenfranchised, be it by error or intent. If our politicians, pundits and press continue their refusal to acknowledge the cracks in the system, it will be up to the rest of us to see the light.