As the dust settles, stirs and settles again in the quadrennial puppet show that is billed as "democracy" in the US, new questions—surprise!—are being raised about the accuracy and validity of vote counts in the New Hampshire primaries.
An electorate shocked to its senses—-well, okay, not exactly-—by the 2000 debacle is understandably jittery about how and by whom their votes are counted, though in truth most seem to have given it little thought before or since.
But the problem is far deeper than which corporate lobbyist-in-training gets the nod to take on her or his counterpart from other industries' lobbyists-in-training. It is even deeper than the notion of democracy itself, as sweeping and grandiose as that sounds. A nation so caught up in its own 'destiny,' its sense of itself so distorted and self-aggrandizing, can hardly look closely at the building blocks of its alleged 'greatness' for fear of confronting the Big Lie of American exceptionalism.
True, the votes in New Hampshire and elsewhere should be accurately counted; there is no excuse for not doing so in a nation which touts its role as the greatest democracy on earth. Suffrage is one of the most elemental components of democracy. Forget for a moment-—just for a moment—-whether the results have any meaning or bearing on the lives of the mass of people. The very least an electorate can expect is that its vote reflects their actual actions in the voting booth.
Much has been made of the discrepancies between handcounted paper ballots and machine counts on optical scanners in the New Hampshire voting. This is, of course, crucial, and should be investigated. But logic blunts the charge absent a control: the two sets of data are measuring different phenomena. It is improbable that a candidate's share of the vote in a certain group of towns would match that in another group. Why would Clinton or Obama have the same exact support in Goffstown that each had in Portsmouth, for example? Still, the widely varying results merit, at the very least, a thorough review.
Of greater concern in this as in every other election is whether there is a discrepancy between raw exit poll data and reported results. One of the greatest and most cynical assaults on US democracy waged by the blowhard lawyers and lackeys of the GOP in 2000 was the charge, which mostly stuck, that exit polls aren't reliable. In fact, and in the world at large, they are considered to be more reliable than actual results. I should say reported results: there are no actual results, keeping in mind Stalin's famous caveat about power resting with those who count the votes, not cast them.
The OCSE, the Carter Center and other world groups consider exit polling data to be the only real check on whether a country is running free and fair elections. Despite the perverse and twisted reasoning of the red-faced James Baker et al (remember that image?—still wakes me up in a cold sweat occasionally), the logic is fairly straightforward. Predictive polling and exit polling are completely different tasks, and it is silly-—not to mention cynical and dangerous—-to conflate the two. In the one instance, the task is inherently pure speculation on an action that has yet to be taken-—even the respondent can't say with complete certainty whether the response is true or not. Exit polling, on the other hand, is sampling the results of an event that just happened. Absent some mass hypnosis or incredibly complex psy-op campaign, skewing the results on a broad scale is nearly impossible.
But of course, the pundits and the politicians and the pollsters know all this, and have for a very long time. Down to the local city councilor, election officials have long dealt with a substandard and wildly inaccurate patchwork of systems based on what the local authority can afford, and who gets what contract for what technology in what district. Punchcard machines jamming and kicking out ballots were so commonplace that up to 10% of cards went uncounted on a regular basis. The dirty little secret is that US elections suck, pure and simple. Many americans were outraged when international monitors offered to observe the 2004 elections, and when Carter bluntly stated that his organization couldn't participate because voting in the US didn't rise to its minimum standards: centralized counting authority with uniform standards, etc.
The real crime is that US voters are led to believe—-and gladly do so-—that their system is not only the best in the world but is above reproach. Such asinine and self-delusional fantasies help to shore up a whole host of other crimes, as delusions of grandeur tend to do. Manifest Destiny made it okay to slaughter indigenous people from coast to coast, just as taming a new continent justified the enslavement of Africans. Saving The World for Democracy made the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and the nuking of Nagasaki and Hiroshima into historical footnotes for generations of students. Our moral superiority over the Soviets not only justified, but necessitated, the militarization of global jihad, not to mention the creeping, nearly complete and unprecedented tyranny of the Military Industrial Complex. And so on. Why would voting be any different when cooked up in this same self-righteous stew?
Of course, it doesn't fool all Americans. In fact, most are so fed up with the system, or so alienated by it, that they steadfastly decline to vote. The façade of democracy has produced a system utterly unresponsive to the people's needs. How else could it sustain the insatiable appetite for war, the limitless spending on arms and killing machines, and the subsequent strangling of any local government's ability to meet people's most basic infrastructure needs? A potential voting friend, neither active nor particularly motivated politically, put it in surprisingly succinct and stark terms: "I hate to sound like a skeptic, but I don’t hold out much hope for any change. By the time they get to Washington, they’re all so beholden to the people who paid for their campaigns that they have to spend their whole time in office returning the favor."
American bravado about its democracy is especially galling in the face of most of its own history. Democrats' timidity in the 2000 sham may stem from its guilt over its own complicity in the deliberate suppression of suffrage. American Apartheid, after all, was the exclusive province of the Democratic Party for nearly a hundred years. I'm reminded of a somewhat sick joke my dad used to tell from the days of the poll tax and the literacy test. An elderly Black gentleman in Birmingham decides to try his hand at voting, only to be rigorously tested on his reading skills by the local thug, no doubt a Democrat. When he read everything in due course, frustrated officials pulled out a copy of The Polish Bugle. They snickered among themselves until the old man said he could read that too. Stunned, the Good Old Boys asked carefully what the headline said. "Ain’t no n***** gonna vote this year in Alabama!" was the would-be voter’s retort. Ah, democracy.
Naturally, the struggle for universal suffrage played an important role in trying to hold American feet to the fire, so to speak. The struggle to hold the society accountable for its racism is ongoing. Every expansion of suffrage in human history has marked a milestone toward the promise of increased freedom and human dignity, and each has come in the face of huge opposition from the elites. But the sad and simple fact is that universal suffrage no longer scares those elites—they have mastered the game. And as Burke said, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. The focus of the struggle is ever-shifting: new battles loom, and we Ewoks must constantly invent new tools with which to fight the Empire. And until Americans realize that we are not special, or different than other people in the world, our government will, beyond our control, the focus of evil in the modern world, to quote another Servant of Empire. Telling the truth is not cynicism, though I'm sure to be accused of it. True cynicism is the forced collective belief that votes have been counted when they haven't, and that results matter when they don't.
See also Welch's recent piece, No Change for Me—-I Want Bills-—US Election Circus Awash in Cliches.
© 2008 Daniel Patrick Welch. Reprint permission granted with credit and link to http://danielpwelch.com. Writer, singer, linguist and activist Daniel Patrick Welch lives and writes in Salem, Massachusetts, with his wife, Julia Nambalirwa-Lugudde. Together they run The Greenhouse School (http://www.greenhouseschool.org). Translations of articles are available in over two dozen languages. Links to the website are appreciated at danielpwelch.com.