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Robert C. Koehler: Ballot And Soul

Ballot And Soul


By Robert C. Koehler
Tribune Media Services

If I want to generate a little fear-based insomnia, all I have to do is remind myself just before bedtime that the 2006 elections are barely a year away. Suddenly I'm awash in cold sweat and my heart starts pounding like a steam piston.

No, please, somebody stop the clock. It's too soon. We can't hold the elections until we get our right to vote back.

If you are one of those people who has opened up the can of worms known as the 2004 election and stared appalled at the irregularities writhing around the count in Ohio and New Mexico and Pennsylvania and other swing states - where dirty tricks and outright disenfranchisement (spurious voter challenges, too few voting machines) were blatant in inner-city and other Democratic strongholds and where electronic, no-paper-trail voting yielded results at odds with exit polls in statistically near-impossible percentages - you know what I'm talking about. Our elections, and therefore our democracy, are not safe, and not enough people know or care yet that this is so.

The only antidote to this insomnia is to connect with other stunned, appalled souls, realize you aren't alone, and begin groping communally for a way to take a stand. And as you do this, a remarkable thing happens. Fighting for fair elections becomes not so much a desperate, stopgap chore as an act of citizenship of the highest order.

This is what I learned last weekend in Portland, Ore., at a gathering of 200 or so appalled souls at an event called the National Summit To Save Our Elections, sponsored by the Oregon Voter Rights Coalition and the Portland chapter of the Alliance for Democracy.

"We're not trying to save democracy, we're trying to create democracy," said keynote speaker David Cobb, the Green Party's 2004 presidential candidate.

That was the tenor of the summit: that while we may be in the midst of a crisis of disenfranchisement, thanks primarily to the frenzy among state and county election officials to move to electronic, unverifiable voting, with counting procedures inexplicably turned over to a few private corporations such as Diebold, ES&S and Sequoia, democracy is /always/ in a crisis of some sort.

That is, power is a high-stakes game and those who have it usually try to horde it. Democracy is only grudgingly submitted to by the powerful, because it's the ultimate in redistribution of power to those who have none, and the franchise is only expanded with struggle. In 1789, when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, African-Americans were considered three-fifths of a human and didn't get the right to vote for almost 80 years. Women didn't get it until 1920. Native Americans, not till 1924 (some, not until 1948). And in the South, African-Americans only got the right in fact in 1965, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

We've been complacent about our democracy for the past 40 years. Since then, a lethargy - a "sophisticated despair," as some have described it - has set in. Voter turnout has steadily plummeted. Until last year, barely half the registered voters bothered to show up to choose a president, and little of consequence was at stake in any case. The contests between superficially distinguishable candidates seemed to hinge on gaffes and tie color, not issues. Our democracy was dying of indifference.

The 2004 election was a watershed in several ways. Thanks almost single-handedly to George W. Bush, the Great Polarizer, voters surged to the polls in numbers not seen in several generations. And thanks also to George Bush and his friends, the election was dirty enough to spark a citizenship movement.

At last.

"We need a revolution every generation," Thomas Jefferson said. Now there's a bit of Founding Father wisdom that hasn't been worn down to a platitude yet. Democracy is either evolving and expanding or it's dying. We have to found our nation anew - wrest it from the cynically entrenched - every generation.

Jefferson's words were quoted at the summit by Paul Lehto, a lawyer from Everett, Wash., who is suing Snohomish County to void its contract with Sequoia Voting Systems on the grounds that the company's claim of "proprietary trade secrets" and refusal to release voting data from the 2004 election, creating a secret vote count, are illegal in a democracy.

What a radical idea - that the voting process should be open and transparent; that the count should be publicly, not privately, done, and absolutely verifiable. If you know this is not the system we currently have, raise your hand.

What's at stake? I think of how dehumanizing one group or another is a precondition for disenfranchisement. "The idea that we all have a right to vote is very similar to the idea that we all have a soul," Lehto said.

Let's see how much democracy we can create by 2006. Let the disenfranchised unite!

*************

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com./

*© 2005 Tribune Media Services, Inc.*


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