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Notes from the WeCount2006 Voting Integrity Conference

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The WeCount2006 Conference on fair elections

I just came back yesterday from the WeCount2006 Conference on fair elections and democracy. It was held in Cleveland over the weekend. I felt impelled to go despite the fact that it involved more than twelve hours of driving, a weekend away from my family and timing that was very inconvenient. I can't express how glad I am that I attended this event. Kudos to Victoria Lovegren, who organized a very well-run event, heavy with terrific speakers and workshops on practical steps to take prior to the November elections and beyond. I have invited many of the participants to submit articles about their workshops and experiences and will post them as they come in. It was an exciting and energizing experience. A lot was concentrated in a short period of time: Friday evening until late and all day Saturday until almost midnight with activists getting together after hours as well.

I wanted to post something as promptly as possible. Think of this as a first installment. More like a diary, or notes from the field. Usually, I write and edit and edit some more. But, I'm anxious to get this out there, so I'm forgoing the many tweaks that my work usually undergoes. Imagine tweaking.

I drove to and from the conference with Bob Koehler, a Chicago-based syndicated columnist. We knew one another slightly, mostly via email and I was unsure how it would be to spend twelve hours or more in a small, enclosed capsule with nowhere to hide. What if he were boring? Or had bad breath? Or had annoying personal habits? That's more time than I spend at one stretch with virtually anyone. I went to the library and took out six books on tape with a total of about one hundred hours of distraction. Talk about overkill. We never even got to examine my choices. The time flew by and if Bob's work is suddenly peppered with Yiddish, the inside skedooley is that they didn't spring from his Lutheran upbringing in Michigan. Besides for playing with words, we did a lot of talking. One of the topics we explored was the solitary nature of our given roles. Bob was the one who coined the term "army of one" to describe his view of himself. Both of us appreciated the conference as a way for us to break out of that isolation and to feel a part of something larger and more dynamic.

One of the speakers was Jonathan Simon, co-founder of the Election Defense Alliance, a national coordinating body for citizen electoral integrity groups and individuals. He made several interesting points in a speech he made Saturday night at the conference. He reminded us of what Mark C. Miller had said earlier: that democracy is historically fragile. Simon added that these times are reminiscent of 1937 Germany. "You have freedom until the day, the minute, you don't. " Talk about a strong opening.

People need to recognize that without free, fair, accurate and transparent elections, everyone's agenda is at risk: environmentalism, anti-war, economic justice, universal health insurance, women's reproductive rights, civil libertarians, supporting our troops by keeping them from a misguided and poorly handled war. Everyone is at risk except the corporate interests and the infamous top 1% which does better and better as everyone else does worse and worse. Simply put, voting is the foundation of everything else. We need to come together for this fight. OpEdNews' readers seem to get it. Last week, I sent out an appeal for donations for the trip to cover my expenses: hotel, transportation, food, etc. I got a great response and want to thank all of you for that. I received an email from one donor. He is on social security and was awaiting his check, which was due in a few days. At the moment he had "$25 to my name" and he sent $10 of it to me. I was honored and touched by his gesture and his generosity. That vote of trust gives me an awesome responsibility.

Bev Harris, the "godmother" of the election reform movement (the Executive Director of Black Box Voting Inc.), was also at the conference. She started out her talk by saying that we don't have to prove anything any more: the reports are out and they are numerous: among them, the nonpartisan GAO report of September, 2005, the Hursti/Black Box Voting hack (Leon County, FL, December 2005), the Carter-Baker Commission, the Brennan Center Report, the recent Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy Report. It's all there for anyone to see. She shared with us a slide show demonstrating how she and another middle-aged friend broke into an electronic voting machine with $12 worth of tools. They did so, changing the memory card, without tampering with the "tamper-proof seal" and got in and out in four minutes, without leaving a trace. You recall that the memory card is what contains the vote tally information. It's also a means to infect the machine (and others) with a vote-altering virus. As she pointed out, she's a grandmother. She urged everyone to work to protect democracy for our children and their children. Otherwise, it will be a tragic story that we tell one another: of the opportunity we missed to protect and restore democracy.

The holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of the Tabernacles, is fast upon us. For a week every fall, many Jews eat (and sometimes even sleep) outside in flimsy, roofless huts to remind us of the forty years of wandering in the desert. It all happened a really long time ago. But, rather than just becoming another chapter of dry history, the story takes on relevance because we can actually feel something of what they felt through the impermanence and precariousness of these dwellings. Meals are regularly interrupted or cut short by rainstorms, high winds, and brutal cold. We frequently sit out there with scarves and mittens and lots of soup and hot drinks. One year, our Sukkah blew across the yard and into the bushes and had to be retrieved and rebuilt in order to use it. Today, we walked to the synagogue in the ominously, unseasonably warm weather, which was followed by huge rains and a hailstorm. Once again, we were reminded of our dependence on nature's blessing and the fragility of our air conditioned/centrally heated protective shell. An hour ago, our power went out. My neighbor is still without. She is coming over at 6am to take a shower tomorrow before work.

In a similar way, we live our daily lives with a protective shell of various underlying beliefs that sustain us: that things are bad but they can get better, that democracy is at risk but won't disappear altogether, that the pendulum will ultimately swing back in the other direction.

To challenge those beliefs is to threaten people's most fundamental (if unconscious) underpinnings. It's akin to pulling the rug out from under them. They fight back with logical questions: if our elections were truly at risk, surely we would read about it in the papers, hear it on the news, etc. Legitimate question. Both Mark Crispin Miller and Bob Koehler slammed the media for its dereliction of duty. The silence allows people to perpetuate their denial; it encourages them to do so. And that is dangerous, indeed.

Miller went so far as to say that had Watergate happened today, we might never know about it. I agree. Look at Woodward, himself a bloated, faded shadow of his former self. While his new book is critical of Bush's misleading us on Iraq, a prior book demonstrated an unprecedented snuggling up with this administration. The guy who didn't want to be bothered by a subpoena and therefore kept quiet about what he knew about Plamegate certainly wouldn't have blown the whistle on a modern-day Watergate. In the same way that Woodward today is not the same as the "Watergate" Woodward, the press is even less of a watchdog or advocate of the public interest than it was a generation ago.

A poll by Zogby , released this summer, reveals that despite this virtual press blackout, 61% of the public has heard of the flaws in the electronic voting machines. Further, a huge majority of the people polled said that they favor transparent elections. I quote Paul Lehto, election fraud litigator, (who was also at the conference) from the article:
"The 92% support for the public's right to view vote counting and obtain information about it is a very strong political value of transparency and against secret vote counting outside the observation of the public. To put this figure in context, support for election transparency exceeds the support for tax cuts, exceeds the approval of Pres. Bush immediately after 9-11, and virtually all other political values being measured."

That is good news, indeed. It means that the independent media, the bloggers and word of mouth have succeeded in getting through despite the corporate blackout. That is very significant and very heartening. Keep talking. But, we have to be willing to ruin someone's day. It's not fun to be a spoilsport. Remember the prophets? They were hardly the life of the party.

And we have to step up the pace. We have to prepare for November. And we have to go in accepting that despite the polls which point to a Democratic surge, despite the massive opposition to this administration's past actions and future plans, we will not wrest back the government. It simply will not happen. It is incredibly difficult to write that sentence. Even though I have known that, deep in my heart, and even written and spoken about it numerous times, it was still painful to hear and accept emotionally. So, I know what denial is. I've seen it within myself. Simon warns us to prepare for it so that when the worst happens, we will not be so demoralized that we cannot move ahead.

Once, not that long ago, ten million people across the world gathered in the streets and demonstrated against American action in Iraq. W's response was that he wasn't going to let it affect him; he likened it to being influenced by a focus group. His comments put an end to large-scale demonstrations. Simon wants people to rise up (with protests, rallies, pro-active pre-and post-election activities) not solely to work for change. But, because it is extremely important that we "rise up so that we can see each other". To counteract the aloneness, the powerlessness, the sense each of us has of being an "army of one". That is as good a reason as any.

Remember the gentleman on Social Security who sent me money he could not afford? That vote of trust carries with it an awesome responsibility. And since I can't possibly do this alone, I'm stretching out my hand to you. I'm not going to mince words. This is going to be the fight of our lives. From the outset, it looks hard, perhaps impossible. But, we must try. As Paul Rogat Loeb says in the introduction to his fabulous book: "The Impossible Will Take a Little While, a citizen's guide to hope in a time of fear", "Nor should we forget that courage is contagious, that it overcomes the silence and fear that estrange people from one another." (p.11) Let's infect one another in preparation for this awesome endeavor. Win or lose: our grandchildren will thank us for it, I promise.
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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