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Tuesday, December 28, 2004


Week Two—American Elections

A post in which J'myle breaks the rules on when you are supposed to post, and badly exceeds the word limit, for the good reason that, if things go according to plan, he will be in no condition to write anything next week, and where he humbly asks TCL for a Christmas Pardon...

Even though the Ukrainian Intelligence Service offers us some of their delicious borsch whenever we say it, this is NPR.

—Tom & Dave
Car Talk

Asking if the American election system is broken is a bit like asking if the Bill Murray character in a Wes Anderson film (Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums, The Life Aquatic) is the good guy. Murray generally plays characters that are horrible psychotics, or at least horribly maladjusted nurotics. But people like them because Anderson drapes all his characters in a sort of cellophane charm—and because the only characters that are even worse are everyone else in the movie.

Like a Murray character, American elections are, as a rule, incompetent, unethical and immoral. Like a Murray character, people hold them in high esteem mostly through a fragile illusion of shallow charm. And like a Murray character, the only thing worse than American elections is everything else.

Incompetent, unethical and immoral? The actual process of elections in this country is handled on a state-by-state basis. Each state, and in some cases, each county, controls the mechanics of the election: choosing machines, counting ballots and keeping accurate voting rolls. The bigger problems are well known: recently it was revealed Black Box Voting's video of a monkey hacking a Diebold electronic voting machine was staged, and that, in fact, you need the intelligence of a sixth-grader with a playstation in order to change the results on a Diebold machine. What people don't see are the smaller, sytematic injustices.

Part of my job this fall, as an intern with the Kerry campaign, was to help people who called in find their voting place. The three public housing projects (read: poor people) in Charleston, West Virginia, voted in precincts 162, 165 and 167. The polling place for precinct 162 was in precinct 165 and the polling place for precinct 165 was in precinct 167. Two days before the election, the county clerk's office discovered that the polling place for precinct 162, a senior center, had in fact been close for six months. They found a new polling pace and declared an "emergency change" in polling place, moving voting to a community center, also located in precinct 165. Upon finding this out, some of our eager volunteers put up a very large sign on the senior center that read, "attention voters from precinct 162: you now vote at Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center." Now keep in mind that the senior center, the sign, and the community center were both in precinct 165, and people from that precinct—the people seeing this sign—all voted in precinct 167, halfway across town.

Sound a little confusing? Remember that all these things happened within two days of the election, that very few of the people in our office knew much about the precincts in that neighborhood of Charleston, and that even the people in the county clerk's office gave me contradictory information every time I called them. It took me six hours to sort out the information above, and in that time I sent a dozen voters to the wrong polling place: I know the people in the county clerk's office were sending people to the wrong polling place right up until election day.

And that's just the incompetent part of incompetent, unethical and immoral. Unethical? West Virginia handed down the first two indictments for vote buying to a sheriff and county clerk in a boondock county before we even had the first exit polls on election day. Meanwhile, back in my hometown of Salt Lake City, the county mayor, Nancy Workman, remained in the race until two weeks before election day, ignoring the first five times she was indicted for misappropriating county funds. After indictment number six, she was convinced—reluctantly—to drop out of the race.

Immoral? The supreme court in West Virginia is elected, and the reelection battle over a judge named Warren McGraw holds, in my view, the award for dirtiest smear campaign of 2004. No doubt my colleagues here have their own worthy nominations (I'm sure Tom Coburn is generally a nice guy, Quilly, but it's difficult for me to have sympathy for Mr. Bathroom Quote, no matter how out of context it may have been taken) but the McGraw smear campaign was truly astounding.

Two years ago, Warren McGraw failed to dissent—he didn't even sign, merely didn't dissent—when a convicted sex offender asked to be given a second chance in a halfway house work-release program instead of being returned to prison. And before the phrase "Candidate Koretz supports giving sex offenders a second chance" makes it to the airwaves, let me tell you the reason this offender was kicked out of the group home: drinking alcohol. He has not, as far as we know, been involved in any inappropriate sexual relations since the offense that he was first convicted for: consensual relations with another boy in a foster home where he had been placed after being taken from his sexually abusive father and uncle.

In any case, Warren McGraw failed to dissent when the supreme court allowed this offender to go back to the halfway house. Later the program put in an application for this man as an elementary school night-shift janitor. The school principal investigated the application and, upon learning the nature of the man's felony, sent the halfway house a polite "are you nuts?!" note.

And then, when Warren McGraw ran for reelection two years later, a shadowy group called "And for the Sake of the Kids, Inc" (ASK) made huge media buys, blanketing the airwaves with ads that pretty much accused Warren McGraw of personally "putting convicted rapists in elementary school classrooms."

Then Warren McGraw went off on what I am assured is an uncharactaristically paranoid rant, asserting that this "ASK" group was the product of some sort of powerful enemies he had made as a judge. This did him no good and only made the smear campaign more effective, right up until two days after the election, when ASK revealed it's donor list, and we found out that it was almost single-handedly funded by Jim Blankenship, CEO of a mining company notorious for screwing over it's workers and endangering the environment. A company that had a controversial case before the Supreme Court of West Virginia to increase the maximum load of coal hauling trucks, a case in which McGraw was expected to rule against Blankenship and in which his replacement is expected to rule in the mining companies favor.

So those are some anecdotal examples of all the things that are wrong with American democracy. And people's opinion that we have a good system is generally based on nothing more substantial than a high school civics class; which—as I'm sure Eddie can tell you—is good only for learning the basics of spin doctoring. The shallow charm Bill Murray characters have. For an excellent point-by-point breakdown of everything your history class doesn't teach you, check out books by Professor James Lowen, Howard Zinn and, of course, the best gift I got this year: America: The Book.

And the worst part—the real kicker—is that all the people who will hear no evil about their country will never be able to understand the strength of American democracy. That we have these ideals—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—that we can always use as benchmarks, as a way of finding out if a particular candidate, cause or policy is a good or a bad idea. That, for all their never-talked about flaws and great big disagreements about how the government should work, our Founding Fathers did set down a lasting standard on why a government should work.

That is something no other country has. That is why, for all our horrible flaws, America had the greatest electoral system on the face of the planet. And anyone who disagrees is welcome to sit down for dinner with the presidential candidates in the Ukraine.

You are only forgiven because its a good post. Next time there will be fiftly lashes with a wet noodle.
Upon further review, (aka i'm more awake now) I've decided that since you can't even humbly be the right person, no, no you must do much better. And as i've said the max post allowed is 5k. Yours in 1384
heh cool blog you have here!

I noticed you have a nice blog, read all of your links kept me interested for a good time! well done :)

Thanks for a good read instead of some of the other stuff people post here!
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