Old Europe and the Brave New World
“It is enough that the people know there was an election,” said Josef Stalin infamously. “The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.” These words should be remembered by those who are inclined to accept the results of our most recent elections. We’ve passed control of the electoral process to private corporations (Diebold, for example), which have agendas completely unrelated to the common good and everything to do with private profit. This was our first error. We’ve certainly had an election—but in many places, the votes were tallied with machines that could not provide verifiable recounts, as there was no hard copy of each vote available should a recount be necessary. This was our second error, and in the case of the state of Florida, clearly unconstitutional (although a waiver was granted, which may also be unconstitutional). This election was either a genuine victory for the right, or an audacious exercise in vote fraud. We can’t tell, and will never be able to, because we can’t do a recount.
Dictatorships around the world regularly have elections. It keeps the people mollified. An election is not, per se, an example of democracy, and vote fraud has been around for ages. For example, in Boston and Chicago dead people have a longstanding reputation for a sense of civic responsibility so strong that they are said to vote even outside of their precincts. Now, America as a whole has a reputation for crooked elections, or at least, questionable ones.
My husband and I recently went to Germany during the national elections, so I voted before we left, taking advantage of the opportunity to vote early. It was delightful to see how many people of all stripes and colors were down at the state building, which was open on a holiday just so people could come vote. It made me happy.
When we got to Germany, everyone seemed very interested in the American elections. The newspapers were full of articles about Bush and Kerry (no mention of Nader, by the way), explanations of our peculiar electoral college system, and discussions of what happened in the last election. It was all very informative. But what was most interesting to me was that not one person I spoke with seemed to believe that Kerry would win. Why? Because the election, they said, was already fixed in favor of Bush. (Germans, having had a few really horrendous experiences with their national politics, are very cynical about things like politics and patriotism.) We watched Farenheit 9/11 two days before the election, on TV—it was nothing shocking to the German audience, which sees this kind of documentary and humor on a regular basis. The particular subject and conclusions were also not unexpected. On election night, the candidates were subject to typical German satire. One memorable skit involved Bush operated via remote control by a German ex-taxi driver: Bush’s difficulty with the English language explained by the taxi driver’s inability to spell things like “Abu Ghraib” and “nuclear.” It was hilarious, and again, the normal lot of any politician there.
After the election, nobody seemed terribly surprised, nor did they seem overly upset. Not pleased about it, but certainly not going off to see their shrinks. This was quite a contrast to the Brits, whose papers featured stunned headlines like the UK Daily Mirror’s now-famous “How can 59,054, 087 people be so DUMB?” Actually, Germans were taking a similar tack in their kabarett: “Dumb as an American voter.”
We left Germany on the first day of karneval season, November 11. It was a telling contrast that this same date is Veterans’ Day in the US—the day we arrived. And so we moved across the world into a completely different political climate, with utterly different priorities. Upon checking my e-mail, I found embedded in one message (without comment) a map of the new political map of North America: The United States of Canada and Jesusland. Alaska, unfortunately, has gone south.
I also found lots of e-mail relating to voting irregularities: a precinct that showed over 4000 votes for Bush but only 600 people voted; a report of a voting machine that, it was discovered, started with a large negative number and counted up to zero (no hardcopy verification available to do a recount, naturally); erroneous voter purges; and the like. Our vaunted voting reform doesn’t seem to have cleared things up much—but we’ve had an election, and that was enough.