Dear Clark County
Three days ago, Dawn Brink, who works at the local hospital in Clark County, Ohio, thumbed through the day's mail and noticed a white envelope with a series of strange stamps affixed to the top-right corner, and the word "Deutschland" written across the front in plain, clear hand.
Brink doesn't get much mail from abroad, and she tore into the letter excitedly.
"I apologize in advance if the purpose of this letter offends you," it began. "If someone from another country wrote a letter to me [and told me how to vote], I would say, 'It's none of your business.' But in this case and at this point in time, some action needs to be taken to get George Bush removed from office before even more damage is done to U.S. relations and the world."
After the first paragraph, Brink deduced that she had received the letter through "Operation Clark County," an ambitious if perhaps strategically flawed effort by the UK's left-leaning Guardian newspaper to influence the American election through a letter-writing campaign targeted at voters in the swing county of Clark County in the swing state of Ohio.
In an effort that reflects the international polarization George W. Bush has caused in his first term as president, the Guardian launched Operation Clark County a little over a week ago with the creation of an online "Democratic tool kit" to help concerned British readers feel like they can have their say in the November election. "Where others might see delusions of grandeur, we saw an opportunity for public service – and so, on the following pages, we have assembled a handy set of tools that non-Americans can use to have a real chance of influencing the outcome of the vote," the Guardian's Oliver Burkeman writes cheekily in an explanatory essay.
Editors at the newspaper, who say they dreamed up the idea at a local pub, also assembled an elaborate editorial package that includes more justification of the effort, background information about Clark County (entitled "Football and Mowers"), and sample appeals by three prominent Brits that most Ohioans have likely never heard of (for example, Richard Dawkins, a professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University). The most crucial aspect of this toolkit, of course, was the web link that allows readers to sign up and receive via e-mail a name and address of a registered independent voter living in Clark County (it comes with a reminder that "charm will be far more effective than hectoring"). The Guardian also plied readers to participate with a contest: four people who are deemed to have written the most persuasive letters will win a trip to the United States to witness the spectacle of an American presidential election up close.
The Guardian reports that about 14,000 names and addresses of voters registered as independent – which the paper accessed through Clark County's elections department by paying a $25 fee – have been handed out to prospective letter-writers around the world. The system gives out an address only once, to make sure that voters don't get more than one letter. But according to some blogs, it's likely that far fewer than 14,000 letters were actually sent – some angry Americans of the Republican persuasion have taken to signing up for a name to prevent Clark County residents from receiving the letters.
Indeed, the Guardian has clearly miscalculated the amount of anger – and the vibrancy of the backlash – that Operation Clark County would engender among the independent-minded voters in Ohio and elsewhere.
"I didn't think it was right to send a letter like that and persuade people to vote for Kerry," asserts Beverly Coale, a retired public school cook whose 85-year-old mother received a letter from England. "I don't think anyone will be persuaded at all. We make up our own minds here. We're not going to listen to anyone who sends us a letter. We think for ourselves and decide who we want and who we'll vote for. We're too smart for that."
"I take this as a great insult," adds Terry Brown, an avid angler whose son received a letter. "If I hadn't made up my mind, this offended me so much that I probably would have voted for Bush because of this letter. It's an insult to my intelligence and to my being an American."
Meanwhile, Linda Rosicka, the director of the board of elections in Clark County has issued a press release that includes the phrase "We fought the American revolution for a reason."
In the intervening week since it began the project, the Guardian has been overwhelmed with mail and press inquiries from around the globe. Some of it has been positive and thankful, but a great number of them reveal sentiments similar to those expressed by Clark County's Terry Brown and Beverly Coale – and some people used graphic and creative language to do it. (For example: "KEEP YOUR FUCKIN' LIMEY HANDS OFF OUR ELECTION. HEY, SHITHEADS, REMEMBER THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR? REMEMBER THE WAR OF 1812? WE DIDN'T WANT YOU, OR YOUR POLITICS HERE, THAT'S WHY WE KICKED YOUR ASSES OUT. FOR THE 47% OF YOU WHO DON'T WANT PRESIDENT BUSH, I SAY THIS ... TOUGH SHIT!")
Indeed, the international media coverage and backlash has been so great that Guardian features editor Ian Katz was inspired to pen an article, published Thursday, that ponders the wisdom of launching Operation Clark County in the first place.
In the essay, Katz offers the reasoning behind the effort: "Surely a letter from a concerned Brit would be received more like a plea from an old friend." He also admits that he was prepared for a backlash, though he was surprised by its "eye-wateringly unpleasant" form. And he clearly underestimated the private nature of an American's relationship with the right to suffrage. "It's not as if we didn't consider the possibility that our project might have precisely the opposite effect to that intended," the article says. "The feature introducing the project included notes of caution from ... a University of Columbia professor. It's just that we didn't believe it."
But in the end, Katz concludes that the Guardian did, indeed, accomplish its goal. "We set out to get people talking and thinking about the impact of the U.S. election on citizens of other countries, and that is what we have done," he writes, even as he acknowledges that the effort flopped, at least a little bit: "Somewhere along the line, though, the good-humoured spirit of the enterprise got lost in translation."
Dawn Brink, the Clark County resident who received the letter from Germany, for one, didn't find the letter particularly offensive, though she didn't think it was very effective, either. "I'm open-minded and I'm willing to listen to other people's views. I've got two kids, so it takes a little more than this to get me extremely upset. I thought it was interesting to get a letter from a different country," she says.
But Brink, a regular churchgoer, has a deep ambivalence for the president that won't be resolved by a letter from a stranger. "I like [Bush's] morals and values on abortion and gays and lesbians, but some things about Bush, I'm not crazy about. We're in bad shape with the war and losing people, and nothing is changing over there. For me, it's a hard decision. I'm going to have to do some praying because I'm not sure."
She offers to read a few more memorable phrases from the letter:
"Your country is the most powerful country in the world and it has a reputation for doing good and being the good guy. I'd like to see that remain intact. At the moment, however, your country is seen as greedy, dumb, completely money-driven, extremist and a problem for the rest of the world."I'm going to vote for who I feel in my heart," Brink concludes. "To me, this is just something that I got in the mail. And it shows that sometimes people will go to any length."
"I don't think you have a great candidate in Kerry but it's not so much the man as it is the policies and the party that you must choose and I urge you to help make that change."