To Catch a Thief
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We were six toasts into the wedding dinner when the conversation turned, as conversations usually do, to the possibility of a Republican theft of the election in November. "That's when we hit the streets!" declared the Cuban American community organizer from Pennsylvania. "Yeah!" bellowed the retired union president from Long Island, and we all pounded the table and raised our glasses yet again: "Everybody hit the streets!"
The streets must be feeling pretty threatened by this time, because the idea of a Republican-engineered election fraud is no longer the property of the kind of people who think George W. designed 9/11 and that John Kerry is a Halliburton-supplied bot containing batteries set to run out on Oct. 15.
Following the wedding, I took an absolutely unscientific poll of friends and relatives, asking what they planned to do, and what they thought others should do, in the event of a 2000 election hoax rerun. Everyone seemed to think this is a real possibility. My sister, for example, an office worker in Colorado, e-mailed to say, "Funny, I've been thinking about that... Ever since , I've thought, 'How could we let this happen? Why didn't we – the majority – hit the streets in indignation?'"
Not everyone wants to rush outdoors with a picket sign. One nephew, who manages a fast food joint in Oklahoma, writes that the answer is "one word: RECALL." But my brother, a realtor in Missouri, doesn't want to bother with any more voting machines. In the event of massive fraud, he writes, "It would be time for a 'New Revolution!' . . . Hopefully peaceful, but I wouldn't rule out anything."
Steve Cobble, a D.C.-based political operative who's worked for Jesse Jackson Sr., told me, "We have to have plans to research the [election] results ASAP, while hitting the streets immediately." Among my activist friends, the only exception to the hit-the-streets line has been Bob Borosage of Campaign for America's Future, who says, "As for stealing the election, I think we better win it first."
Yes, of course, by all means. But no matter how many people we register and drive to the polls, the possibilities for monkey business are numerous and arcane. Among them:
- Computer fraud, especially in places offering touch screen voting without a paper trail (although a paper trail is no guarantee of accuracy if it's generated by the same screwed-up software as the touch screen votes). It's particularly worrisome that at least two of the companies that provide computerized voting machines – Diebold and InterCivic – have strong ties to the Republican Party.
- Selective discouragement of easily identifiable Democratic voters, i.e., black ones, such as occurred in Florida in 2000. Already, John Pappageorge, a Republican state legislator in Michigan, has urged his party to take measures to "suppress the Detroit vote." Plainclothes officers from the Florida state police have been trying to intimidate elderly black voters by going to their homes and interrogating them about their status as voters.
- Relying on the Pentagon to forward e-mail votes from troops in combat zones to their local election offices, as Missouri and North Dakota are planning to do. As The New York Times has editorialized, this creates a situation "rife with security problems."
- And, the most lurid of all, declaring a red alert and postponing the election, a possibility already floated as a trial balloon by Tom Ridge.
In the weeks remaining to us, prevention may be the best medicine, and all sorts of groups are gearing up to guard against a coup. Common Cause and People for the American Way, among others, are mobilizing to oppose touch screen voting and to increase the ranks of poll watchers. The Democratic Party has lined up 2,000 lawyers in case of dodgy-looking results and is bringing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor our election for the first time ever. Taking the foreign monitor theme one step further, the feisty folks at Global Exchange have invited their own 28 nonpartisan foreign observers. All over the country, local Democrats and citizens' groups like Count Every Vote 2004 are preparing for a heavy presence at the polls.
But if the preventive measures fail to produce a credible election, don't expect the Democratic Party to lead the fight for democracy. The most painful scene in "Fahrenheit 9/11" – and there are quite a few contenders for this title – is the one in which members of the Congressional Black Caucus speak to the Senate, one by one, pleading for just one senator to join them in stopping the Supreme Court's selection of Bush. When faced with a truly revolutionary situation – an electoral coup from the right – Al Gore folded like a lawn chair. As for Kerry: He may have had some backbone thirty years ago, but too many years spent sitting in the Senate have rendered it the consistency of Play-Doh.
So we're on our own, folks – those of us who still hold to the idea that our leaders should be elected rather than perpetuated by fraud. In addition to all the poll monitoring, touch screen protesting, etc., we need two things. First, some agreed-upon group to declare the election fair or fraudulent. This may not be an easy or obvious call, according to my friend the political scientist Frances Fox Piven: "If this election is stolen, it will be stolen at the most local level, and we won't know right away." Maybe the OSCE can be relied on to pass judgment, or maybe the ACLU should be appointed to do the job, with MoveOn spreading the word.
Second, we need a plan of action for the all-too-likely event that the election is determined to be tainted. "Hitting the streets" sounds good, but if we each do it on our own, the neighbors will just conclude that we're taking out the recycling or assessing our leaf-raking issues. Asked what we should do, Linda Burnham, of Count Every Vote 2004, suggests people start planning now for local demonstrations at election boards. Piven recommends nationwide protests that are both "nonviolent and disruptive," possibly on inauguration day. John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, writes: "On Feb. 15, 2003, over ten million people in over 600 cities around the world took to the streets to say no to Bush's [war on Iraq.] Another stolen election will require coordinated efforts like this, on a larger and more sustained basis, until the stolen goods are returned. Mega-networks like United for Peace and Justice, which played a central role in Feb. 15 as well as the recent mass march at the Republican Convention, will need to retool so they can play a central role."
All this sounds good to me – local planning for local responses and national coordination by a trusted group like United for Peace and Justice. But we have to get started, well, last week. Democratic voters need to be assured that some of us won't take another coup lying down. And Republican dirty-tricksters need to start feeling the first shivers of fear. If all the people who are saying they're willing to hit the streets actually do so, there won't be a lot of people left indoors to wait tables, teach school, or pay taxes during W's second term.
Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive. She is the author of "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" and "Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War."