It is not a secret that voter turnout in Midterm elections is lower than Presidential elections. In 2002, turnout was 77.5 million voters (versus 122.3 in the 2004 Presidential election), which means 114 million people hid from the polls in a way that would bring shame to the millions of people who have fought and possibly died for that very right. With a twist of the fingers, and eyes squeezed shut in hopeful anticipation, it is feasible that we will achieve a higher voter turnout on this November 7.
With the war, and the country, going to hell in a hand basket (have we already arrived?), politics has progressed beyond the usual discussions at the office water cooler and into our homes. In a recent poll, over 70% of Americans are discussing politics with their families and friends on a regular basis. With that kind of high level of political interest taking place, can we dare to believe it will translate into ballots cast? With this many pissed-off Democrats (hell, even the Republicans are saying, "It is time to 'Hand over the tiller of governance, that others may f*ck things up for a change.'"), what would stop them from venturing out to the polls and solidifying their sense of political worth?
For starters, only 45% of Democrats feel confident that their votes will be counted and only 30% of blacks feel the same. With two highly controversial elections under their belts, the Republicans have given many a sense of unease; at one point, it was hard to go a week without hearing the question "was the 2004 election stolen?" (Katherine Harris was replaced by Ken Blackwell as the worst Secretary of State ever). Is what happened in Florida, followed by what happened in Ohio, to blame for low voter turnout? Not completely.
Everything from a reduced mobilization effort to tough registration to midweek voting to corrupt officials (Mark Foley playing virtual touch-and-feel with Congressional Pages), have led to a decline in political participation. The newest fad of participation-rot is due to the suggestion that the voting system is flawed and seemingly so in favor of one particular party. And who wouldn't be upset by this, as the new electronic voting machines arbitrarily begin to count backward or randomly cast 4000 extra votes for Bush, as an Ohio machine did in the 2004 election? Outrageous would be the tally of 150,000 votes in a district with only 50,000 voters. Disconcerting? You bet your ass.
Even as computer scientists warn that any highly-advanced geek squad member could upload a virus into the vote-counting programs, to delete a set number and then self-destruct, machine manufacturers have strictly denied access to their programs from outside experts, making many believe that the "elections in this country are becoming proprietary."
Diebold technology was found to have problems in their machines that would allow one person to cast multiple votes, could terminate elections count before all votes were tallied and could permit changes to election results without detection. Of course these cases are not the norm, this isn't happening in every district across America (though coincidentally, it seems to happen most in districts with high Democratic, poor, or black voters).
Because of the Bush/Gore election, HAVA (Help America Vote Act) was passed in 2002 to improve the election procedures and rebuild public confidence in a fair system. Though HAVA does not require the use of electronic voting machines, due to the act, over 80% of users in this upcoming election will use them and about 1/3 of all precincts will be using this technology for the first time, leaving the door open for more human blunders and technological glitches.
Another anomaly plaguing black and low-income voters: A poll tax in the form of an obligatory driver's license or state-issued ID costing upwards of $25. In Georgia, one of the three states that passed this legislation (a judge has since vetoed it in all except Missouri), over a half a million active-status voters do not have valid photo IDs. 17.3% of African American voters, and 1/3 of black voters over the age of 65, would not be able to vote under the law.
If not having to pay for photo IDs, low-income voters still often deal with extremely long waits, gerrymandering, inadequate polling machines and staff members who are entirely untrained, unequipped and about as motivated as a 15-year old McDonald's employee. Problems arose when states assumed that voter turnout would be low among the poor and failed to sufficiently staff and equip voting stations. There were many reports in the 2004 election that at least one polling station in New Orleans did not open until early afternoon, and that "poll workers frantically calling the County Elections Office got nothing but busy signals."
What about the intentional acts and the foul play: The Nguyen's of the political world? How about the fictional Milwaukee Black Voters League in Wisconsin that were dispatched into black neighborhoods, preaching, "If anyone in your family has even been found guilty of anything, even a traffic violation, you can't vote in a presidential election." And "if you violate any of these laws you can get ten years in prison and your children will get taken away from you."
Or, how about the fliers in Franklin County, Ohio, claiming to be from the County Board of Elections announcing that due to substantial numbers of voters registered, all democratic votes would be cast the day AFTER the election, only republicans were to vote on election day. This, in the same place where the Mighty Texas Strike Force made phone calls warning ex-prisoners that they would be re-incarcerated if they dared vote, and telling others that their polling place had changed. Congressional scrutiny found that the Ohio Republican Party had sponsored that one.
New Hampshire: The Executive Director of the State Republican Party hired GOP Marketplace to seize up the Democrat's phone bank system during the 2002 Senate election. This resulted in the election of the Republican Senator and the incarceration of three men.
The Republican National Committee contractor, Sproul and Associates, sub-contracted with Voters Outreach of America, which was caught destroying registrations of Democrats in Las Vegas.
As heart-warming as all of these stories are, it is certainly defeating what sense of political efficacy this country has left, and for sure has a profound impact on the low-income and minorities. In a time when voter participation is already at an all time low, these discouraging tactics help to keep America at home in bed, uninterested and uninformed. You can't help but not blame those who no longer desire to turn on their televisions in fear of being bombarded with negative campaign ads, political corruption and the powerful elite who don't consider you a "creative force" in the economy unless you are in the top 1% of the U.S. population.
Can we rescue this "democracy" from its contemporary distortions and convince enough people that political equality still matters? Can we dare imagine that enough people are so sufficiently pissed off that they will get out the vote no matter what their obstacles? I know I will continue to cross my fingers and squint my eyes in optimistic anticipation. Here's to hoping.