Copyright © 2005 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
In the southwestern corner of the U.S. sits the sprawling small town of San Diego. Perhaps you have heard of it: the gateway to Tijuana, the world-famous zoo, the sunny beaches, the mayoral election that was handed to the candidate who came in second.
For decades touted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as one of the best-run cities in the nation — no doubt because of its business-friendly political machine that recalls L.A.’s in the noir era — San Diego was suddenly revealed some months ago to have underfunded its employee pension fund. As the city’s credit rating began a journey to the center of the earth, Mayor Dick Murphy received re-election challenges not only from fellow pro-development Republican Ron Roberts but, at the last minute, from populist city councilwoman Donna Frye. The machine had never liked Frye, who as an activist in a surfers’ organization had fought hard for clean beaches and environmentally friendly development policies.
Even though Frye was the only voice on the city council who had protested the hole in the pension fund before the scandal broke, the city machine did not take her too seriously when she declared her write-in candidacy for mayor. Not until democracy threatened and Frye pulled ahead of Murphy did the machine grind into action. The results were particularly important this time, because the machine had pushed through a proposition to change San Diego’s charter and give the mayor more power, hoping to circumvent a city council that had become more Democratic — and democratic — in the past decade. Their worst nightmare would be to see their least favorite councilperson assuming that power.
Thus, in an all-too-familiar ritual, the vote counting had to get creative. First all those write-in voters who had misspelled Donna Frye’s name as Fry or Frey were discounted, until a court order filed by a Frye-friendly attorney restored them. More problematic, it turned out, were ballots on which voters had written Frye’s name but not filled in the circle that would indicate she was their choice. Sure enough, a judge determined that, under the city’s laws, just writing in the name of the write-in candidate provided insufficient evidence of the voter’s intent. Without a filled circle, the vote could not be counted. As a result, 5000 “illegal” votes for Donna Frye were set aside, giving Dick Murphy a 2000-vote advantage and handing him a second term. To her credit, Donna Frye has not followed Democratic Party policy by promptly conceding, and court challenges to the results continue.
When the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, it took aim at the many means local governments had instituted (especially in the South) to keep unwanted voters (mostly black ones) away from the polls. Among these were poll taxes — fees paid at registration that could be adjusted to the race of the voter — and so-called literacy tests, manipulated to fail black voters, as well as outright intimidation. Intimidation has continued, although the GOP has proved more subtle than the Klan-using sound trucks to warn blacks off the streets, or stationing officials around the polls to check ID’s, as happened in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004.
Florida also used another old Jim Crow tradition that was not stopped by the Voting Rights Act: denying many black and presumably Democratic voters suffrage by erroneously listing them as felons. Worse, although theoretically everyone has equal access to the polls, nothing in the Voting Right Acts requires that all votes actually be counted. There is reason to believe that “less likely” voters who don’t fit the preferred profile — minority, youth, independent and third party — are regularly undercounted. Investigative journalist Greg Palast, author of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, suspects that such shenanigans in Arizona and New Mexico — simply dumping many Latino and Native American votes — deprived John Kerry of those states as well.
This year in Ohio, exit polls did not match final results, faulty or missing voting machines disenfranchised many potential voters in predominantly black, urban neighborhoods, and Republican poll police challenged many voters, forcing the use of provisional ballots that could simply be ignored. A “glitch” was reported and reportedly fixed after voting machines in one precinct gave Bush twice as many votes as there were voters. This time not all Democratic congresspeople rolled over, and Michigan Representative John Conyers, alongside California Senator Barbara Boxer, led a small delegation, largely from the Congressional Black Caucus, in challenging the re-selection of George W. The national Democratic leadership hung back. They had done all their heavy lifting to keep Ralph Nader out of the race.
French social theorist Michel Foucault makes the point in his tome Discipline and Punish that with the arrival of democratic states during the Enlightenment the traditional ruling classes did not fade away; they simply had to get more subtle and manipulative to maintain control. Noam Chomsky makes a similar point in his book Manufacturing Consent. In the U.S. the process begins with the primaries, which is when registered members of the two governing parties decide which candidates represent their party’s interests and when, more importantly, big money decides which best represent theirs. It is rare to the point of statistical anomaly, especially on the national level, for anyone to survive the primaries who does not have the welfare of the largest donors at heart.
Since nearly all that money is corporate, it is no surprise we have a Bush dynasty representing only the interests of the international business class, nor that a “safe” candidate like John Kerry edged out a firebrand like Howard Dean in the Democratic primaries.
It was droll — in a dark, Catch-22 way — to see the administration protest the government manipulation of the election results in the Ukraine, where real democracy actually finally broke out. It is similarly droll to hear the administration’s solicitude about faking democracy convincingly in Iraq. There, unlike here, they deem it important that minority voters get a voice — in this case the unhappy Sunnis from whose ranks the dissidents arise. There has even been talk of guaranteeing a certain number of seats for them in the parliament, regardless of election results. Do I hear “quotas”? Affirmative action?
In short, the winner-take-all-regardless-of-how system we enjoy in this sharply divided nation is correctly recognized as improper in a sharply divided nation like Iraq. One has reason to suspect, however, that the ultimate goal is the same: creating a docile population and thus a stable environment for an American-style corporate republic.
Given that we do not see disenfranchised Democrats and independents taking to the streets or occupying government buildings, the system seems to work. Maybe our citizens are more like the Chinese — willing to trade off rights for more stuff — than the Ukrainians. God is in his White House and all is well. Unless you have some outdated liberal notions about democracy.