Calling off America

Thursday, July 15th, 2004

How weary are we of democracy?

The enemy is softening us up, working us like sheet copper: “Al-Qaida plotting to strike at November elections!” Don’t panic, America. But just, well, be aware that evil is swift, sudden and omnipotent.

And we may have to cancel the election.

Can you believe the headlines lately? First Tom Ridge pushes that big toothy John Edwards smile off page one with his random update from the zero-credibility intelligence community about “alarming” “chatter” indicating that terrorists want to disrupt the nation’s electoral process.

Then, while we’re still chewing that possibility over, wham, along comes a Newsweek tidbit guaranteed to make us spit out our dentures. The Department of Homeland Security is considering submitting legislation to Congress authorizing Secretary Ridge to reschedule the election if something hairy, a la Madrid, happens, the magazine reported.

Say again? The second-place finishers who gained the White House in 2000 by legal shenanigans and selective disenfranchisement (then acted like they had a landslide mandate) now want emergency authority to override the Constitution and postpone this year’s election if they consider it necessary? How scary is that?

The republic held firm — pheww. The public gasp was sufficiently loud to force the Bush gang to back off from, indeed deny they had even considered, such a brazen contingency plan. (“Hey Tom, our poll numbers are in the toilet; let’s reschedule this thing!”) But the very fact that the idea floated out there at all indicates to me how dangerously antidemocratic the partisans in office actually are, and how ready they are to exploit every opportunity to prolong their stay in power.

Our fragile democracy may be in more peril than it’s ever been — giving a certain ironic truth to the scare headlines Ridge was generating last week. Somebody’s plotting to strike at the November elections.

Al-Qaida’s brand of terror may or may not happen again on our soil, but it could never damage the soul of democracy unless we allow it to, by, for instance, deciding to live in fear because of it and ceding our sovereignty as free people to our own government, in return for the illusion of safety.

That’s why my concern about what al-Qaida is up to pales next to my concern about what the Bush administration is up to — and what the media and the opposition party are not up to. If the nation’s pulse of fear quickens, will they hang tough? Will they call a spade a spade? I doubt it. They caved in 2000.

That preposterous election, which Al Gore won by half a million votes nationwide, came down to Bush’s widely disputed 537-vote plurality in Florida. This was the state of wholesale vote spoilage in black and Latino precincts, the state that notoriously harassed African-American voters at the polls that year, the state that had purged as many as 57,000 mostly black non-felons from its voting rosters because they had names similar to actual felons — yet these crimes against democracy, which certainly cost Gore the election, never generated banner headlines or serious protest in the halls of Congress.

Now, as Election Day 2004 draws near, widespread concern about threats to the integrity of the electoral process — which are a lot more tangible than intercepted chatter — remain unaddressed.

For instance, the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which eliminates punch-card voting, is pushing states to upgrade to computers and, thus, exchange the problem of pregnant chads for that of hacker interference and unverifiable numbers.

The touch-screen voting machines coming into increasingly widespread use around the country, manufactured by Diebold Inc., leave, eerily, no paper trail: Once your vote enters cyberspace, that’s it. There’s no backup record of how you voted, no possibility of manual recount.

Diebold’s software is unsecured from potential hackers and deemed unreliable by independent researchers; and not only is the company itself secretive and uncooperative, but its CEO, Walden O’Dell, is an ardent Bush partisan. He once, notoriously, wrote to guests at a political fund-raiser he hosted: “I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.”

Many of us don’t need to see scratchy footage of Osama bin Laden to get chills up our spines.