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"Commander 'N Thief", a must-see documentary by Tom O'Brien

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"The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything." – Joseph Stalin

Since art does not exist in a vacuum, I would like to place my review of Commander 'N Thief within the context of recent newsworthy events. Unfortunately, you'll have to dig hard to find coverage of them in the mainstream press.

Almost two weeks ago, the House Administration Committee unanimously decided to throw out numerous 2006 election challenges, including that of Clint Curtis. He collected hundreds of voters' sworn affidavits that point to a different reality from that indicated by the election results in Florida. Alas, none of the candidates were invited to testify and Curtis's evidence was neither examined nor evaluated.

I joined other concerned citizens in mounting a last-minute campaign (since this was snuck in under the radar) to protest this cavalier disregard of basic democratic principles. We were successful in deluging committee members' offices with faxes, e-mails, and phone calls. Unfortunately, the committee members were unmoved by this massive display of public support. The committee was made up of five Democrats and three Republicans – so much for the big changes expected after the 2006 elections.

It seems that the accurate counting of the vote is not a big priority for our elected officials in D.C. Those who have posited that there isn't a nickel's worth of difference between the two parties have fuel for their argument. Is there something in the water inside the Beltway that makes conscientious, well-meaning individuals susceptible to collective amnesia regarding their responsibility to the very people who put them in office? Why is it such an uphill battle to convince our representatives that fair elections are something that deserves more than lip service?

Commander 'N Thief, the twelfth film on election integrity that I have reviewed, is so chock full of material that it's hard to know where to start. This documentary does a great job spotlighting the 2004 election, and goes farther than the others I've seen. While it is not partisan in tone, it does not shy away from calling a spade a spade. From opening with Stalin's words on elections, it cuts directly to Greg Palast, investigative journalist and author, who baldly states,
I don't think John Kerry won. I know he won... and that they did not count the votes... This is not conspiracy theory...These are the facts. It's a question of numbers; it's a question of votes...millions of votes cast, not counted. It's not the story of the Ukraine... It's the story of the United States of America... Maybe you won't like what you hear. It should get you real energized. Get ready for the information and then get ready to do something about it.

While most of the film is spent presenting the evidence of massive, nationwide election fraud in 2004, Palast casts his eyes ahead to 2008, where he predicts more of the same, but on an even larger scale. He calculates that there were around two million votes in 2000 that were cast but never counted. That number jumped to over 3.6 million in 2004, and he anticipates five million "spoiled" votes in 2008.

The film is overflowing with data for fact-hungry viewers – charts, statistics, and technical information galore – that all add up to a pretty grim picture. Huge numbers of American citizens were systematically stripped of their votes in a way that was neither accidental nor coincidental. These voters were predominantly from minorities and lower socioeconomic levels – according to Palast, 89 percent of all uncounted votes came from minority precincts. Bob Fitrakis calls this tactic "high tech, 21st century Jim Crow."

We have all heard about the gross misallocation of voting machines. Despite predictions of massive voter turnout, Ohio's Democratic strongholds got fewer machines than they received during the primaries. Numerous machines were moved from over-crowded, urban Democratic precincts to not-crowded-at-all, suburban Republican ones. Susan Truitt of Citizens Alliance for Secure Elections went to the Franklin County BOE on the morning of Election Day to report that many precincts had long lines and a shortage of machines. Franklin County Director of the Board of Elections, Matt Damschroder, magnanimously admits in the film that their failure to get the machines to the needy precincts was "a mistake on our part."

Somehow, the very machines that were in the urban precincts during the primaries ended up sitting out the general election in a warehouse, as has been verified by their serial numbers according to election lawyer Cliff Arnebeck. The odds of the machines randomly distributing themselves in this way are astronomical: 72,500,000,000,000,000 to one. This – coupled with all of the other election anomalies, irregularities, and disparities that defied all statistical probability by swinging only one way – points to far more than a mere "mistake": rather, a well thought-out plan of vote suppression that violated basic civil rights and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The infamous Ohio Secretary of State, Ken Blackwell, went out of his way to make sure that certain voters would find it more difficult to vote. Incorrect polling places were posted on the official SOS website; an unrealistic demand for registration on 80-bond paper was enforced based on an obscure law; voters were not allowed to vote in the wrong precinct; and provisional ballots were not counted. This all adds up to massive disenfranchisement of minority voters, who vote Democratic by overwhelming margins. As Ohio community activist Mark Dunbar states succinctly, Blackwell "chose the Republican Party over the people of Ohio."

In another abuse of the system, white Republican men in suits went into black wards to "challenge" and intimidate voters by casting aspersions on them and their legitimacy. In addition, thousands of minority voters were notified by phone or mail that they would be arrested at the polls if they had served time, were on probation, had warrants out on them, or had outstanding traffic tickets. Voters, standing in line for hours in the rain, were threatened that their cars would be towed, adding insult to injury.

One particularly insidious and distasteful disenfranchisement ruse involved black soldiers overseas. Greg Palast tells this story in the film, which also appears in his book, Armed Madhouse, recently updated and reissued. The RNC sent the servicemen first class letters carefully stamped, "Do not forward." Because the soldiers were away serving their country, they were obviously not home to receive these letters, which were subsequently returned to the RNC as requested. Their names were then referred to the state Republican Party chairman, who reported that these individuals apparently no longer lived at their listed addresses, using the returned mail as proof. On Election Day, when the servicemen voted from overseas on their military ballots, they had no idea that their votes would be thrown out by an invisible, illegal, and immoral challenge. These servicemen and women were deemed good enough to fight and die for their country, but not to exercise their right to vote. How do we expect to export democracy when it is evidently in such short supply here at home?

Chellie Pingree of Common Cause sums up the situation succinctly. She says,

"They're really trying to make it harder for certain people to vote in this country and that is so unpatriotic and anti-American and goes against the grain of what we have to do to be a strong nation that we have to fight that at every turn."

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, "When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Peter Peckarsky, a lawyer who argued on behalf of Ohio voters before their state Supreme Court, says that looking at all of the anomalies and inconsistencies, there is

"no logical explanation consistent with an honest election. There is plenty of explanation consistent with a gross deprivation of civil rights and some type of dishonesty or corruption of the vote count."

Bob Fitrakis freely admits that cheating in elections is certainly nothing new, but by using machines with secret proprietary software run by a few private corporations, we make it all but certain that people will cheat and no one will know. Until the perpetrators get prosecuted for vote fraud and are sent to jail, the temptation to manipulate our elections offers very big rewards without much risk.

There are many culprits responsible for the public ignorance of what's befallen our elections. There is the silence of the press, the agenda of the voting machine corporations and their lobbyists, the elected officials who have gotten stuck in a mess of their own creation, and the basic trusting nature of the American people. It is awful and scary to think that officials would rather prop up an unworkable system than admit they made a mistake. Hubris and greed are bringing down our country like no external enemy could. As Abraham Lincoln presciently observed, "Americans will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed them ourselves."

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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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