The Headless Crisis

Thursday, October 5th, 2006

As the party of torture and war profiteering finally founders on a scandal tawdry and trivial enough to achieve media staying power — a month before the congressional election, no less — I counsel sober restraint on the ironic gloating.

Sure, if the outing of U.S. Rep. Mark Foley’s gay chat-room banter with an underage congressional page brings down the Republican Congress, stops war with Iran, saves habeas corpus and wrests our democracy from the crowd that hates it, well, that’d be great, of course. But I don’t think we should get complacent.

What we mustn’t do is succumb to the illusion that democracy somehow takes care of itself.

I address this column to those of you with doubts, large and small, about the electoral process, and there are a lot of you out there — more than half the electorate, according to a recent Zogby poll. If you start taking your doubts seriously — if you begin staring with unblinking eyes into the can of worms that is our electoral system — you’ll feel your priorities begin to shift. There’s no non-alarmist way to put this: It’s worse than you think.

We’ve let the Trojan Horse of the voting process, electronic machines, into our polling places. These insecure, easily hacked machines — which, in the absence of paper trails and transparent, public verification procedures, amount to the complete privatization of the vote count — have failed one real-life test after another in the primary elections this year. And very few people in official positions, in government or the media, are making a public issue of this, any more than they cried foul about the plethora of old-fashioned dirty tricks that disenfranchised large numbers of minority voters in the 2004 election and quite likely altered the results (though the alarm bells should sound whether they did or not).

The stakes are unbelievably high. Control of the nation’s— the planet’s — future is hanging in the balance. The dialogue about this future should be open, and the custodians of our national direction — regarding war and peace, the environment, health care, education, security, disaster protection — should be those who carry a real mandate to do our bidding. One-third of Americans, according to that Zogby poll, have no confidence at all that this is currently the case, and another 20 percent harbor doubts.

Whether Big Media acknowledges it or not, this is a crisis — a headless crisis, perhaps, lacking enough voices with national reach to give it a shape and legitimacy, to declare a national pattern. But that will change. The voting rights movement is growing, and it’s at a threshold. People have begun to extend the definition of citizenship to include monitoring elections, beginning with this one, and stopping, or at least shining a public spotlight on, irregularities at the polls as they are occurring.

Citizenship! This was the byword of a powerful, information-dense conference I attended last weekend in Cleveland, called We Count 2006: A Conference About Fair Elections and Democracy.

Exercising citizenship means taking matters — legally, nonviolently — into our own hands. It means demanding what almost all Americans understand to be their birthright: transparent elections, publicly counted votes. It means, so people are coming to realize, nothing less than creating new infrastructures to do the job that the ones we have in place — the media, the “bipartisan” precinct organizations — aren’t doing.

Citizen actions discussed at the conference include holding “parallel elections,” that is, setting up tables outside polling places and courteously requesting voters, as they leave the polls, to cast their vote again, in order to gauge the veracity of the official tally in that precinct. (For more information, check out

Also discussed: showing up, with video cameras, tape recorders and a knowledge of one’s rights, at polling places and vote-counting sites, to document fraud, intimidation and other irregularities (see Documented skullduggery can go up immediately on the Internet and be broadcast by non-mainstream media outlets.

This sort of activity may sound daunting. It amounts to more than just “raising our voices” or “writing our elected officials,” the usual, and easily dismissible, options we have for complaining, after the fact, about perceived wrongs. But people are going to be doing these things. They’re committing themselves to reclaiming democracy from the status of a spectator sport, which is how Big Media covers it.

These are extraordinary times. We’re being pressed to take a stand like never before. The Bush administration’s incompetence to govern is equaled by its ruthless determination to gain and maintain power, and it will not go away quietly just because it would lose a fair election.