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War vs. Democracy

The paradox of democracy is that it depends on the integrity of those who have the most to lose if an election goes the wrong way — you know, the people in power.

That’s a particularly thorny dilemma when the “fourth estate” — the speakers of truth to power, the public’s counterforce against political hackdom — are basically corporate wimps who view their job as the voice of public relations for the status quo, the defenders of our conventional beliefs, e.g., that God’s in his heaven and America is the world’s oldest, greatest, most secure democracy.

But in 2016, even the mainstream media are trembling with uncertainty. As Harvey Wasserman and Bob Fitrakis recently wrote: “Now 16 years after the theft of the presidency in Florida 2000, and a dozen since it was done again in Ohio 2004, the corporate media is approaching consensus that it is indeed very easy to strip millions of legitimate citizens from the voting rolls, and then to hack electronic voting machines and computerized central tabulators to flip the official final outcome.”

I’m sure the party to thank for this late mainstream awareness that our computerized voting system is painfully vulnerable is Donald Trump, who has dragged the election process into territory more puerile, racist and reptile-brained than even the corporate media can tolerate.

Change is coming, apparently, whether we want it or not. Bernie Sanders and the progressive revolution were neatly, efficiently stiffed by the Democrats, but the “alt-right” nationalists and white supremacists surprised the hell out of the Republicans, and now their man is leading a charge up Stone Mountain, promising to make America great again, or at least free of non-European immigrants and the cruel constraints of political correctness.

Two months before the election, I feel the need to pause and look in several directions at the shortcomings of the process we celebrate with such self-adulation.

In an interview with Rabbi Michael Lerner at Tikkun, Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate, points out: “The magnificent work that the Bernie Sanders campaign did and the momentum they built and the public support that they demonstrated and mobilized is a wonder to behold, and it has forever transformed the political landscape. But it was essentially sabotaged by the Democratic Party as it has always done since George McGovern won the Democratic Party nomination, and the rules of the game were changed so that a grassroots campaign could not win the nomination again — in part by creating superdelegates and Super Tuesdays, but that’s not the end of it.”

It is in this context that I bring up the concept of election reform. For democracy to be real, three rights must be protected: the right to vote, the right to have your vote counted, and the right to choose a candidate who actually represents you. And as usual, all three of these rights are under assault.

Of course they are!

Those in power work hard to create a social structure in which they will remain in power. As Bill Moyers wrote: “It is now the game: Candidates ask citizens for their votes, then go to Washington to do the bidding of their donors.”

Vote suppression takes many forms. The Jim Crow era is long dead, but today we witness the spread of harsh voter ID laws in many states, the closing of voting precincts or miserly allocation of voting machines in low-income and college neighborhoods, and the disenfranchisement of ex-felons (most of whom are men and women of color, thanks to the “new Jim Crow” that is the prison-industrial complex).

As U.S. Rep. John Conyers and Barbara Arnwine pointed out several months ago in The Nation: “Whereas voting rights were ascendant in 1966, voter-suppression tactics are spreading in 2016. Whereas Congress was moving in the right direction in 1966, in 2016, it’s often conspicuously absent.

“The challenge this year — the 50th anniversary of the implementation of the (Voting Rights Act) — isn’t just protecting free and open access to the ballot; it is also rekindling the fire that forced federal action on voting rights.”

And then there’s the absurd spread of eminently hackable electronic voting machines, which, as Wasserman and Fitrakis pointed out, has finally reached the attention of the mainstream media. The Washington Post, for instance, recently noted that “computer experts . . .  have long warned that Americans vote in a way that’s so insecure that hackers could change the outcome of races at the local, state and even national level.”

At least this last matter has an obvious solution: “nothing less than a full and secure hand-count of paper ballots done at the precinct,” as Victoria Collier points out. This is “something the American public is likely to support, if given all the facts. What’s missing, however, is the political will and public resources to carry out this kind of fully verified election.

“Apparently, in the United States, we can conduct multiple trillion-dollar wars around the globe, but counting our own ballots on election night is simply an overwhelming proposition.”

And that pretty much sums up the state of American democracy. We believe in the concept, but at the level of elections, we don’t actually have one right now. We have endless war instead. It’s impossible to have both.

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Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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