2006: A Year to Write Ballads About

by Mary Howe Kiraly

Here's to Election Integrity Activists. We didn't know it then, but in the bitter aftermath of the 2004 election, a miracle happened. People all across the United States planted their feet in their communities and said, "You may roll over me this time; but you are not taking this democracy down."

We knew what had happened in Ohio 2004, and we didn't stop talking about it. We knew what the original Mitofsky-Edison Exit Polls had shown and we didn't stop thinking and writing about it. We had no leadership and we didn't stop organizing. We had almost no funding and we didn't stop supporting each other. We were facing a political caravan whose leadership pompously planned to encamp on the castle grounds for the next several hundred years; and we were having none of it. We didn't have much; but we had a candle, some firecrackers, and a determination to save the vote.

We understood immediately that, if we could not record, protect, and count the votes -- in the 2006 election -- then there could be many more years with those in power using the election system to protect the status quo. We held up a candle and said repeatedly, "Here is what you need to see ... and here and here."

We raised such a fuss in our communities and in our states, in such great numbers, that we overcame the feeble reports in the press and the excuses from election officials. Finally, despite much sputtering about "experiencing just a few glitches," "clattering from conspiracy theorists," and "learning its simply pollworker error"... someone had to respond. The reluctant responders would be the Elections Administrators and Secretaries of State who control our voting systems; and who are often much too well connected to the manufacturers of voting equipment.

The American election system is still a House of Cards that Greed built -- but now its secret passageways are blocked with miles of security tape. Its doors and windows are secured with locks of all kinds. Fences were built, Guards were set, and Citizens gathered and watched at every step along the way- because, in the end, citizens are paying $billions for The House that Greed Built. The corporations have been forced to respond to the denigration of their corporate product because their bosses, the stockholders, are demanding it.

It also helped to have a few firecrackers go off early in the 2006 election year. That would be Ion Sancho in Florida and Bruce Funk in Utah: courageous elections directors who opened their election systems to outside review, at great risk to their careers. It was just enough of a breech in the fortress, protecting all the secrets, that the movement's Betsy Ross was able to lead a raiding party in two crucial attacks. That would of course be Bev Harris who isn't afraid to bundle up her petticoats and dive into some unsavory dumpsters in treacherous jurisdictions. At the same time, a number of experts and scientists, with a great deal to lose and little to gain, had the courage to stand up and speak out about how little time remained to topple the House that Greed built. They continued to raise their voices when their reports were ignored, their interviews were not broadcast, and their books were passed over by publishers. This is patriotism.

There were also firecrackers that went off in the traditional media in 2006. The groundwork had been laid by the efforts of a variety of internet-based media outlets: Op Ed News, the Free Press, Common Dreams, Media Consortium, and Alternet among others. Bloggers and citizens with email lists also played a part. Lou Dobbs was one such firecracker. Keith Olbermann was another. By the time the November elections rolled around, the mainstream media was reporting on machine problems, political dirty tricks, and vote suppression efforts of all sorts, in a way that it had failed to do in 2004. It was the persistence of citizen activism that eventually punched through corporate media obfuscation and complacency.

Some, whose hats are too tight or pulled down over their eyes, will look at the 2006 Midterm Election and ask, "What was the fuss all about?" We know what the fuss was all about. It was about all the protection that we forced into place. It was about citizen observation of the local election process. Together these actions deterred much of the unbridled mischief that was possible this year, had we not chosen to stand guard beginning in the winter of 2005. The fuss was about thousands of volunteer poll watchers and election judges in our precincts. It was about independent efforts to produce exit polls and parallel elections that would capture the will of voters. It was about citizen actions of all sorts, that served notice that the people were watching, that finally led the media to stand its ground and monitor carefully what was unfolding.

But it is not over yet and there are still many things to discuss. The machines are just as insecure today as they were on Tuesday. Voter registration rolls are just as prone to purges as they were on Monday. In fact we are just beginning to sort out the realities of an extremely complex event. An outcome consistent with the perception of the general will of the electorate notwithstanding, the many problems reported on Election Day must be documented. And the telltale signs of manipulation must still be investigated.

We are, however, in a changed environment. It is one where we can agree that our goal is to have an open election system, a system that will allow all qualified voters to have their ballots recorded and counted as cast. It is an election system that will have the internal integrity to convince losers that they honestly lost and give winners the legitimacy to conduct the work of the nation, in the name of the people.

If our good fortune continues, in the near future we will have an election system with ballots recorded on paper, with votes counted in the open, overseen by citizens. Today we can congratulate ourselves. We had a good day on Tuesday. But for next week, and for every week after, we must remind ourselves that we are in the middle of a journey. All that we have accomplished serves to remind us of the extent to which a healthy democracy requires eternal vigilance on the part of individual citizens, dedicated to protecting the heart of our communities: the American election system.

Mary Howe Kiraly is a voting activist working with EDA and living in Maryland.

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