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Armed Madhouse and the huge task ahead of us

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I just came back from a wedding in St. Louis. Besides for getting plenty of books-on-tape and noshes for the road, I also loaded up on reading material, an essential part of any trip. My family jokes that a normal person could last for months at a time on what I take with me (clothes, food, books). What can I tell you? If I don't take it, you can be sure that I'll need it. What's the big deal? The car isn't complaining. Yet.

I had been looking forward to grabbing a copy of Greg Palast's latest: Armed Madhouse. Reading The Best Democracy Can Buy last year actually pushed me into working for electoral reform and exposing the dangers of electronic voting to democracy-lovers everywhere. I eagerly awaited his new oeuvre. It seemed the perfect choice for the trip. More about this later.

The more I look backward to past elections and forward since November 2004, the more anxious I am about the vast challenges which confront us. As the Conyers report pointed out in What Went Wrong in Ohio and is picked up in Steven Rosenfeld's recent article ("Elections are still stolen the old-fashioned way" http://www.alternet.org/story/38119/), there were/are so many strategies being used simultaneously. I feel like the famed little Dutch boy who heroically stanched the flow by sticking his finger into the hole in the dike. Only, in my recurring nightmare, I don't have enough fingers to keep everything together until help arrives. And, is help even on the way?

Since beginning my "Invisible Ballots" lending library project last September, I have come to see the value of casting the whole electronic voting mess in a nonpartisan we're-all-in-this-together light. It works well; for who would not agree (publicly, at least) that our democracy works best when the most people can vote and their votes are counted fairly and accurately? In fact, I can now go for quite a long time without bringing up partisan politics altogether. But what happens when we move on to the various other ruses for keeping down the vote AKA suppressing minority voting? Do Republicans see this as a problem? Is it just a few rotten apples pursuing updated Jim Crow methods of disenfranchisement or is there a general feeling that victory is all that matters? I would be very interested to hear from Republican readers about this. Electronic anomalies can affect Republicans adversely too (in recent primaries, at least two electronic voting results were overturned and converted Republican losers into winners).

Let me speak frankly. What about the other 'stuff'? I'm talking about the misallocation of voting machines, the purging of voting lists, intimidation, caging, targeting minorities for threatening phone calls. What about the provisional ballots, used in massive numbers for the first time in 2004? Did you know that HAVA (Help America Vote Act of 2002) mandated that provisional ballots had to be provided, but not that they had to be counted? That was left up to each Secretary of State. And we all KNOW how nonpartisan they are. Look at Katherine Harris in Florida 2000 and her wannabe Ken Blackwell in Ohio 2004. Palast calculates that more than 3 million voters were given provisional ballots. Of those, more than 1,000,000 were trashed. In Nevada, 60% of provisional ballots were rejected. In New Mexico overall, Hispanic ballots were five times more likely to be thrown out; in precincts over 75% Hispanic, the likelihood of having a provisional ballot rejected was 900% more likely than in a precinct 75% white. Take a second and reread that sentence. It's a whopper.

Do you hear anyone talking about this? Does the deafening silence bother you? Okay then; what are you doing about it? Are you upset but secretly glad because the end justifies the means? If you let this slide, be honest about the fact that you are making a moral choice. Doing nothing is complicity, no more, no less. If this seems unduly harsh, let me assure you that I'm not singling out Republicans. This holds for anyone and everyone who does not actively protest this corrupting of our elections: including Democratic members of Congress afraid of their own shadows and the wrath of the majority party, Progressives resistant to acknowledging what's been done so far and what's planned for the future, Independents and former voters who've thrown up their hands and bowed out of the whole shebang. Trust me. I know that feeling. For a long time after November 2004, I had a bumper sticker hanging in my kitchen. It read "Wake me up when it's over". Well, guess what? I really would pull the blankets over my head if I thought it would be "over" at some point. But, by that time, our democracy will resemble what was left of the Wicked Witch of the West, after her involuntary dousing.

I consider myself to be pretty cynical, not completely, but hard to catch totally off guard. Palast's "African American voters scrubbed by secret GOP hit list" (http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/061606j.shtml) blew me away. It's about how Black servicemen serving abroad, many in Iraq and Afghanistan, were disenfranchised in time for the 2004 election. Most ingeniously, I might add. Letters were sent by the RNC to targeted Black servicemen at their home addresses. The envelopes were stamped: Do not forward. Family members following instructions unwittingly gave the RNC the ammunition to challenge and then purge these names from the list. When servicemen voted by absentee ballot, they had no way of knowing that their ballot would be rejected once it got stateside; they had been invisibly disenfranchised. Good enough to fight and perhaps die for their country but not to exercise the right to vote and chose our leadership. Truly diabolical. Is this what we're fighting for?

I haven't even mentioned the phone jamming scheme in New Hampshire on Election Day 2004 which involved dozens of phone calls to the White House and resulted in $3 million in legal bills which the Republican campaign picked up. Or the Texas Strike Force which came to Ohio and was lodged and sponsored by the Bush-Cheney campaign and who spent their time calling former felons and warning them not to come to the polls. Or Warren County, Ohio, which declared a terror alert (unconfirmed, to this day, by the FBI) in order to lock out observers while the votes were counted. Or the photographer photographed (what goes around comes around) watching for days at a time outside the polling place where minority voters went for early voting. He didn't have to say a word. Just his presence and his camera were intimidating enough. Maybe all of this didn't affect the eventual outcome. Maybe it did. How will we know? And, more importantly, what message does it send when one political party seems hellbent on depriving minorities of their constitutional right to vote?

How do we remain resolutely nonpartisan in the face of all that? It's hard not to point fingers, to say the least. What if we say that we oppose all voter disenfranchisement, wherever it occurs and whoever is guilty of it? Can we all at least agree on that?

As this list (however incomplete) attests, much remains to be done. Waking up to one small aspect of the problem is, simply, not enough. To paraphrase one voting activist describing another aspect of the election 'pickle' we find ourselves in, it's like having a bucket with ten holes in it. If you plug eight or nine of the holes, the bucket is still leaking. Somehow, we have to organize and mobilize and educate ourselves and start talking and meeting and planning a strategy to fight this many-tentacled beast. It will take a massive effort on the part of millions of simple citizens, like the memorable character in "Network" who said: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

One more issue about those darned machines. Paul Lehto's article "Zero Guarantee" talks about what more than $3 billion of our tax dollars buys. Since you are now hopefully regular readers of the Daily Voting News (www.VoteTrustUSA.org), you have been reading about the nationwide train wreck which is our country controlled by electronic voting. With this indispensable overview, you are able to connect the dots and see the overall picture, something which the corporate media does not achieve (or even attempt). Allow me to quote Lehto. He explains the crux of the matter better than I could. "By their own admission in the words of their signed contracts with government agencies, voting machine vendors "disclaim" or refuse to stand behind their products. The voting machine vendors also refuse to promise that their products will work or that they will be fit even for ordinary uses or for any particular purpose that the vendor knows very well or has reason to know is the purpose for buying the machines. Because these "disclaimers of implied warranties" routinely appear in contracts to purchase voting machines, activists and government officials should not allow or approve such low standards to be brought into our election processes. This point is of sufficient strength and importance in making points concerning both the importance of elections as well as the low quality of voting machines that citizens may consider holding an "intellectual sit-in" so to speak and simply keep asking the question in different forms over and over again: How could the government agree to run our elections without obtaining a promise or warranty that the machines will work? How could the vendors think they should be allowed to present these kinds of risks to democracy if they're not willing to stand behind their products 100%? Does this constitute recklessness? Corporate favors? What's going on here?" Good questions. Let's ask them until we get some answers. How long would we stay afloat if we adopted such business practices in our own lives?

The next book on my reading list: Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen? Exit Polls, Election Fraud and the Official Count, by Joel Bleifuss and Steven Freeman, Seven Stones Press. For all you non-techies out there: I have it on good authority that this book is very readable and informative. Arm yourselves so you can engage knowledgably in conversations on our elections and help to educate your fellow citizens.

A few of the issues I couldn't even get to, which will have to wait for another OpEd piece: campaign finance reform, the squelching of the political power of unions, the undisclosed and massive cost of maintaining and storing the electronic voting machines which could bankrupt communities and will definitely result in new ways to allocate shrinking dollars (Republican Gov. Ehrlich of Maryland calculated that the real cost would be 1000% more than the original estimate supplied by Diebold). How Diebold has taken over voting registration in California and how this spring, 1 in 3 new voters were rejected in Los Angeles County, 1 in 4 statewide. How Alaska's voters were continually thwarted by Diebold and state officials when they wanted to examine the votes to determine how 100,000 more votes than voters were recorded. This one is a doozy; after many delays and lots of excuses, it was finally declared that to release the information that the voters were entitled to under the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) would be a threat to national security. As far as I know, they still don't have the information they are legally entitled to. What are the repercussions for other states with reported discrepancies? Who's really in charge here?

Write me and tell me what you're doing or plan to do to stop this steady and fatal erosion of our democracy. I will post your ideas and they will inspire others to jump in. Perhaps I can also facilitate some sort of forum where we can propose suggestions as how to best go about this. My relationship with computers in general and their hidden treasures is rocky at best. But, since I never cease to be amazed by their myriad possibilities, I'm confident that we can find ways to use technology to help us in our campaign. The trick is to say "Count me in!" We'll work out the details as we go along. Otherwise, all we'll have left is a ravaged and unrecognizable mess which once resembled democracy.

Few of us possess special skills or experience to do this job. I certainly don't. Our passion to restore and preserve the democracy that our fellow citizens have fought and died for over 230 years of American history will have to be sufficient. The good news is that passion is contagious. Share some today!
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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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