Democracy’s Abu Ghraib

Thursday, April 21st, 2005

“That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.” — Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

What if it could happen here?

This is the disquieting question I hesitate to ask because, once asked, it pretty much changes everything. The answer roars in behind it, as obvious as a Florida hurricane, an Ohio twister, ripping up the complacent heart. What if it could? What if it did? I think of my daughter, quickly, guiltily, and the country she’d inherit. I can no longer stay on the sidelines. No breath comes easily afterward.

It’s what I would call the spirit of Nashville, where a national conference was held in early April on the issue of vote fraud and election reform — a conference of expert testimony on dirty tricks, uncounted ballots, needlessly long lines, weird numbers and evidence of electronic vote tampering, adding up to a crime against democracy.

As angry as I’ve ever been with the direction of any given administration’s foreign or domestic policy, I never doubted the bedrock premise that the country itself was sound and free, and that political activity — speaking up, attempting to sway public opinion — always had the chance of reversing that policy. I never doubted, even after moving to Chicago in the mid-’70s, with the old Daley Machine (“vote early and vote often”) still huffing and wheezing, that elections mattered and could alter the balance of power. I never felt disenfranchised. Now that certainty is gone, replaced by dread.

I do know that I’m not alone. The column I wrote about the conference last week hit a nerve, generating more e-mail and more hits to my formerly obscure Web site,, than anything else I’ve ever written, by several powers of 10. It was not “sore loser” stuff. John Kerry, indeed, was hardly a candidate to inspire that kind of loyalty. I heard from readers who saw irregularities firsthand last Nov. 2 that churned their stomachs:

“I live near Toledo, Ohio and worked 12 hours on Election Day driving people to the polls, mostly in the inner city,” one woman wrote. “I saw up close what was happening — the long lines, the aggressive Republican challengers, the broken machines. I personally live in an upscale, predominantly Republican suburb of Toledo and people sailed through the lines at my voting place. The difference in voting conditions vs. in poorer areas couldn’t have been more glaring.”

There was a malice afoot that day directed at our electoral process that cannot be explained away as mere flaws in a basically sound system, as Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell attempted to do, shrugging off his critics with the glib observation that “There’s no such thing as an error-free election.”

No, no, we can’t let copouts and smug catchphrases stand as answers to the serious questions the nation must ask. What happened on Nov. 2 were not “errors,” honest or otherwise, to be tolerated as harmlessly inevitable. Nor were they random. Nor did they occur “on both sides.”

There were, on that day, a “dizzying list of electoral problems that might make some wonder how any ballots were counted in November.” So the Washington Post reported the other day, as part of the coverage of the opening session of the Commission on Federal Election Reform hearings.

Well, gosh. Think of that. This is not page 17 news, though that’s where the Post buried it, in its unfathomable news judgment. But at least the story is seeping out. This requires national outrage, an unstinting demand that the details of fraud and disenfranchisement be outed, the perpetrators punished and, most important of all, future elections secured from a repeat. It’s democracy’s Abu Ghraib.

I fear that a force is loose in the land that will stop at nothing to impose its agenda on the nation. We already have a permanent state of war and the USA Patriot Act. Now the Senate Republicans are attempting to implement the “nuclear option” and eliminate the filibuster — what William Rivers Pitt calls “the last lingering firebreak” separating church from state — so that 12 far right nominees to the federal judiciary (a mere 5 percent of the Bush administration’s total) can be confirmed over Democratic objection.

“. . . right now they believe they have the power to get anything they want,” writes Pitt, referring to the “theocracy” wing of the GOP. In the context of a disabled electoral process, this is truly chilling. Could it happen here?

With God on your side, who needs democracy?