William Rivers Pitt: From Selma to Ohio
From Selma to Ohio: A Report from the Conyers Hearing
By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Report
Wednesday 08 December 2004
It looked for all the world like a real hearing. Along the far wall were arrayed Congressional Representatives from the Judiciary Committee. Before them at a long table sat witnesses and experts in front of microphones, prepared to give testimony on the record. Behind the witnesses sat row upon row of everyday citizens who came out to watch the proceedings; the crowd was so large that an overflow room needed to be opened on another floor. Along both walls were arrayed more than a dozen television cameras.
It looked like a real hearing but it wasn’t, because despite the issuing of invitations by the Democratic Minority members to their GOP Majority brethren on the Judiciary Committee, not one Republican congressman bothered to show up or give their blessing to the proceedings. Judiciary staffers from the Minority office told me the GOP majority would not even allow this hearing to be videotaped on the television equipment that came with the hearing room, and so they were forced to pester C-SPAN into showing up. They did, along with a number of other media outlets, but the effect was a quieting of the entire event.
In the official sense, then, this was not a true Congressional hearing. It bore no weight in law. One cannot overstate, however, the importance of what took place in room 2237 of the Rayburn House Office Building today. In this place was discussed the very future of participatory democracy in America, and the serious problems that future holds if the allegations of vote fraud in Ohio and elsewhere which were the subject of this hearing, are not dealt with in immediate and dynamic fashion.
It all began with a letter from Rep. John Conyers to Ohio Secretary of State Blackwell. In that letter, Conyers described a long series of irregularities in the Ohio Presidential election that amounted to an accusation of fraud. The letter was the basis for today’s hearing, and made sure to invite Blackwell to participate. It is worth noting that Blackwell did not show up today.
The hearing itself was a showcase for both fact and passion. The witnesses, the Representatives before them, and the crowd that filled the room lit the place up with a concerned electricity. Some believed the irregularities and outright fraud which marred the Ohio vote require immediate redress, a successful completion of which could come to overthrow the results of last month's election. Others saw the hearings as a gift to their children and the future, a means to ensure that any and all elections to come will not suffer the kind of nonsense that afflicted both November of 2004 and November of 2000.
Jon Bonifaz, general counsel for the National Voting Institute, is bringing a lawsuit against Secretary of State Blackwell in order to bring about a full recount of the vote in Ohio. He said of the hearings today, "I think this moves the ball forward with respect to demonstrating that people in this country, throughout this nation, demand a full accounting of what happened on election day, and demand that all votes be properly counted. Until we get to that point of all votes being properly counted, we cannot declare this to be a legitimate election."
Some scattered observations from my notes of the proceedings:
Rep. Nadler: The right to vote and to have the votes counted is indispensable. Confidence in our election processes is on the wane, and the stability of our government is threatened. We do not have the luxury of waiting to fix all this, as the next national election comes in two years.
Rep. Scott: The complaints were not limited to Ohio. In his state of Virginia, some 500 complaints were made by voters. In his own district, voters were given ballots that did not have his name on them.
Rep. Watt: The basic premise of our democracy is the vote. If it is broken, it must be fixed, and we must institutionalize a process that continually evaluates the way we run elections. If we can deliver ballots to rural voters in Afghanistan on the backs of donkeys, surely we can make sure our elections are free and fair here in America.
Ralph Neas (President, People for the American Way): In Cuyahoga county, Ohio, there were fewer voting machines available to the voters during the Presidential election than there were during the primary election. Secretary of State Blackwell, he of the paper-weight obstructionism, wins the Katherine Harris award this time around. There should be prosecutions over all this, and people should go to jail.
Cliff Arnebeck (Chair, Common Cause Ohio): The fraud must be fixed. It must be fixed now, and not in the future. People cannot and will not accept a fraudulent election for the office of President. The best precedent that can be set is to state flatly that people will not tolerate fraud, and will not ‘move on’ until the problems are repaired. How can we, with a straight face, talk about democracy in Iraq when we cannot guarantee democracy here at home?
Shawnta Walcott (Zogby Inc.): This election has created an unprecedented level of suspicion that things did not go as they should have. Zogby Inc. wants to see a blue-ribbon panel created immediately to investigate the claims made at this hearing.
Rep. Jackson: We must have a standardized national voting process and take the matter out of the hands of individual states, which can keep the process "separate and unequal." We must have a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote. How can people argue that the right to own a gun is implicitly stated in the constitution, and then turn around and say it is acceptable to have the right to vote only be ‘implicit’ in the constitution?
It was this last point, made over and over again by Reverend Jesse Jackson, that drew the most applause from the audience and attention from the Congressmen. In demanding a constitutional amendment cementing the simple right to vote, Jackson spoke of the long line that reached from Selma, Alabama to Ohio, and into this room. "This is not about who won or lost," he said. "This is about participating in democracy. The 2004 election is not past-tense. We are not whining. It is time to take this struggle to the streets and fully legitimize this struggle."
The importance of the presence of Reverend Jackson was described best by Cliff Arnebeck. "If you look at who was here," said Arnebeck, "you had leaders from the generally white political reform movement, and leaders from the black civil rights movement. This is a powerful coalition. We are not talking about one group having dominance over the other, but a real partnership of the traditional political reform community with the traditional civil rights community, and Reverend Jackson is the one that proposed it, has initiated the organization of it."
"Jesse Jackson, as you could see today, is giving tremendous moral leadership to this," continued Arnebeck. "He has tremendous credibility. This is a man who walked with Dr. Martin Luther King in the long civil rights struggle that we honor so much in our history now. This is the man who was holding Dr. King when he died. I was sitting right next to him when he talked about the fact that there aren't members of Congress with children dying in Iraq, and tears were in his eyes. This is a man who feels this stuff deeply, and when he talks about what is at stake, he means it in the deepest part of his being. It shows, and people respect that, and I feel privileged to be associated with him in this struggle."
The hearing today took place in a unique moment in our history. Election fraud and voter disenfranchisement are not new in our history, but have been as much a part of the process as campaign buttons and baby-kissing. The fact that the electorate’s voting habits are becoming more clearly drawn, and the fact that so many were watching like hawks after Florida in 2000, means that the standard-issue fraud which has always existed now has a bright light shining upon it, and means the new kinds of fraud involving electronic machines and computer tabulators are likewise suffering intense scrutiny. In this moment, that bright light means the problems, both new and old, can and must be addressed, repaired, and purged from our democratic process.
Aspects of the hearing could have been better. There was a lot of heat from the panelists and from the crowd, but not nearly as much cold data delivered. Had the forum presented that cold data, had the forum made an irrefutable case, the process to come would have been better served. The data was there – the panelists came armed with reams of paper and facts – but needs to be more fully delivered to the public at large. There were also grumblings among the assembled about why it was that Dennis Kucinich was not in attendance, about why Howard Dean chose this day to hold a press conference that sucked some of the media oxygen out of the hearing room, and about why no Kerry campaign people or Senate staffers made any kind of public appearance at the event.
There was also a moment of deep frustration when the Representatives opened the floor to general questions from the audience. This led to something that always seems to happen when liberals and progressives get in a room together. Person after person came to the microphone not to ask questions, but to pontificate at length on whatever crossed their minds. As usual, this stole time from people who actually had questions, and led to a watering-down of the information at hand. When Conyers gently prodded people to move it along, some got openly aggressive and angry, despite the fact that they were riding roughshod over the stated process. Rep. Frank finally had to lay down the stomp on the quickly-unwinding process. The open forum could have been a beneficial addition to the hearing, but became in the end a waste of valuable time.
At the end of the day, the hearing was a beginning, a chance for those fighting this fight to look upon one another and know they are not alone. Rep. Conyers and his fellow Congressmen are to be commended for putting the process in motion. The most striking moment came when the hearing ended, and all of the people assembled began embracing one another. They had made their voices heard, they knew they were not alone, and it smelled like vindication in there when all was said and done.
The hearing was a beginning. There will be more, especially in Ohio. The lawsuits will continue. Rep. Conyers intimated today that he might object to the seating of the Ohio Electors when the certification process begins. The protests will continue to grow across the country. Perhaps, if we can follow through and accomplish the cleansing of our democratic process, we will look back on this day in room 2237 of the Rayburn House Office Building and know that yet another popular movement towards achieving that more perfect union began here, in this time, and in this place.
Pitt is the senior editor and lead writer for truthout.
He is a New York Times and international bestselling author
of two books - 'War
on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know' and
Greatest Sedition is Silence.'