I’m very happy to have an interview with Nancy Tobi as the first in my series of articles using Fooled Again as a jumping-off point for discussion on the state of our elections. For those of you who don’t know her, here’s a little background on Nancy. She is a native New Englander, and a 22-year New Hampshire resident. She is the author of numerous articles on election integrity, including "The Gifts of HAVA: Time to Ask for a Refund," "What's Wrong with the Holt Bill," "We're Counting the Votes: An Election Preparedness Kit," and the soon to be released "Hand Count Primer: Lessons from New Hampshire." She is Legislative Coordinator of Election Defense Alliance, co-founder of Democracy for New Hampshire, and Chair of the New Hampshire Fair Elections Committee. Her writings may be found at www.opednews.com , www.electiondefensealliance.org , and www.democracyfornewhampshire.com .
Q. What did you think of the latest edition of Mark Crispin Miller’s Fooled Again?
A. Mark's book lays out in honest and fearless language the truth about America's recent elections. We are a country in trouble, and Mark pulls no punches in letting us know just how deep our troubles go. This is a necessary truth that Americans need to be able to hear and, no matter how painful, listen to and act upon. It's a call to action for all of us who care about the American dream, and are willing to defend it.
Q. What does democracy look like to you? How is your view affected by living in New Hampshire?
A. I have a lot of privileges as an American citizen living in New Hampshire. We have a long history of grassroots politics and grassroots democracy. Our legislature is the largest citizen legislature in the nation, with one state rep for every 3,089 citizens. It's been said that California would need something like 12,000 reps to have the same proportional representation. This is not accidental. Our large legislature is borne of the inherent distrust the founders of our state (and our country, coincidentally) had for centralized power.
As a result, this large legislature allows for a certain intimacy between the community and its elected representatives. Nobody is too hard to reach, too far "above" the citizenry. We take pride in our community involvement and how it plays out in our political culture. Community is built into the legal political infrastructure too. Our elections are all held locally, in our towns or city wards. The elections are run by eight locally elected election officials who are all members of the community. In the towns, our elections are typically held in the old town halls, with bake sales, quilt raffles, and other fun events that invite community members to enjoy community chatter and interaction as part and parcel of their voting experience. In my town, whenever a new voter casts a ballot, the election official calls out, "Another new voter in town!" and everyone applauds.
Q. Boy, does that not sound like anything ever likely to happen in Cook County where I live! It sounds more like a Rockwell painting come to life. Elsewhere around our country, such deep-seated involvement at the grass-roots level has sadly atrophied, if it ever existed. For the rest of us, please explain how this whole thing works.
A. When community is part of the democratic process, there is a sense of accountability and responsibility. Our local election official reminds his ballot counters – all community volunteers who come in when the polls close to help hand count the ballots – to "handle their neighbors’ votes with care."
The counting of ballots, in public view and observation, by community volunteers who have all taken the oath of office, takes on a celebratory air. Teams of counters representing the different parties, and independents too, watch over each other. They correct each other’s mistakes, and check and balance the counting, the tallying, and the recording of the votes. We all know, at the end of the night that whoever won really did win. Whether or not they were our candidates of choice, we are all satisfied with a job well done by all the election volunteers who were serving their community. Handshakes and smiles abound. There are no ill feelings regardless of the election outcome.
This is the way democracy works – community, responsibility, accountability, checks and balances, and friendly patriotism.
Q. How did New Hampshire come out the way it has? Why is it so different than elsewhere in America?
A. Grassroots democracy is embedded in our New Hampshire history and political culture. New Hampshire founders were also signers of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. They drafted the first state constitution of our free country, which was ratified in 1784, just after Massachusetts ratified theirs. Our NH Constitution makes no less than four references to the need for our elected public officials to sort and count our votes in open meeting. Back in the day, this might have been a vote where those on one side of the issue stood on one side of the town meeting hall, and those on the other side of the issue stood on the opposite side of the hall. Their votes, in their physical stance, were sorted and counted in that open meeting. We then progressed to paper ballots – all cast into the wooden ballot box, and all sorted and counted in open meeting.
Q. So far so good. So what happened?
A. Then came the techno-election revolution of the 1980's, when computers were introduced to our nation's election systems. New Hampshire went along with that, too. But in 1994, we passed the first paper ballot law in the nation, which says that no machines may be approved for use that don't read the voter's choice on a paper ballot. Now we have 45% of our polling places counting ballots by hand, and 55% using computerized optical scanners.
The cities and towns that chose to go techno – because the choice in New Hampshire is a local one – were persuaded by the Diebold salesmen that this would help them get things done quickly and easily. Now those election officials have become addicted to their machines, and have forgotten the community aspect so necessary for real democracy to flourish. They are afraid that they won't be able to find enough community members to hand count the ballots.
Q. So, where does that leave you Granite State citizen-democrats? How do you get back to your tradition of community-based participatory democracy?