Fear of riffraff

Thursday, June 9th, 2005

“I guess my vote don’t matter anymore.”

The shiv to the gut of democracy that occurred last Nov. 2 can be found in reams of data and volumes of eyewitness testimony, but first it’s in those words or it’s nowhere at all, and if we hear them and don’t feel our outrage rise maybe we never will.

For those who want to learn the truth, much of the testimony is contained in two recently released publications, “What Went Wrong in Ohio: The Conyers Report on the 2004 Presidential Election” (Academy Chicago Publishers) and the phonebook-sized “Did George W. Bush Steal America’s 2004 Election: Essential Documents” (CICJ Books). There are also ongoing conferences about vote fraud.

I just got back from Cleveland, where one was held over the weekend, sponsored by the grassroots political group Ohio Vigilance. It was there that I talked to singer/activist Victoria Parks of Columbus, a city newly notorious for the long lines at its inner-city polling places and other dirty tricks that added up to disenfranchisement for thousands of voters.

At a hearing before the Franklin County Board of Elections that Parks attended, “His testimony was the most powerful,” she said of the elderly man quoted above. “He’d voted in every election. He believed it was important, his civic duty. The right to vote gave him the power to determine his future. He was obviously very proud — never missed an election. He’d been voting at the same precinct for 50 years.”

But, as happened to so many others that day, “His name just disappeared off the rolls,” Parks said. “His name was just removed, no explanation.” He was forced to use a provisional ballot — which was not only an insult to someone like him, but a crapshoot in terms of whether the vote would actually be counted.

“I guess my vote don’t matter anymore,” he said at the public hearing. Parks was so moved she wrote a song with that title.

I have pledged to stay on this story about the rot at the core of our democratic underpinnings until I’m confident that the next election will be secure. I know I won’t feel this way until the alleged irregularities — the unconscionably long lines in Democratic precincts, the untold instances of vote flipping (press Kerry, Bush lights up), the undervotes, the bogus “code red” lockdown in Ohio’s Warren County while the votes were counted in secret, the Ohio precinct where 638 ballots were cast but 4,258 votes were recorded for Bush (what investigative reporter Bob Fitrakis calls the miraculous “loaves and fishes” precinct), and so much more — are thoroughly investigated, and accountability and paper trails (better yet, paper ballots) are guaranteed by law in 50 states.

And this won’t happen until the country’s small-d democrats, who constitute, I am positive, a large if disorganized and overly trusting majority, demand it. Right now they’re in a fog that’s one part denial and 99 parts ignorance.

As a columnist who relishes e-mail interaction with my readers, I find myself taking up the cause one skeptic at a time. This is how I wound up investigating one correspondent’s claim, via the Web links he sent me, that there was fraud on both sides, a sort of symmetry of corruption that evened out into a fair election.

This is a comforting stopgap assertion that may preserve complacency, but not only does it fall apart upon examination, it actually reveals what might be the underlying hysteria — Republican fear of riffraff, you might say — that made vote suppression not only widely tolerated but a participatory sport in 2004.

What some Republicans call “fraud” is what most Democrats call “inclusion.” The Washington Times, for instance, got stressed out shortly before the election because: “A coalition of liberal groups committed to defeating President Bush has spent more than $100 million orchestrating the largest voter-registration drive in U.S. history, raising concerns of widespread voter fraud in 14 battleground states.”

Volunteers and staff for one progressive group, for instance, “knocked on the doors of hundreds of thousands of low-income and working families and contacted potential voters at shopping centers, grocery stores, street festivals, sporting events, naturalization ceremonies and hip-hop concerts.” (See if you can spot the code words!)

If that weren’t bad enough, the Lufkin (Texas) Daily News reported the shocking allegation that the staff of a local school for mentally handicapped adults “attempted to bribe students with ice cream if they voted the ‘right way.’” The charge was leveled by the chairman of the Angelina County Republican Party, who also initially questioned whether the mentally handicapped could vote at all — which, of course, they can.

Who gets to vote? Whose vote matters? The soul of the nation is at stake.