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The Machinery of Democracy | The Nation

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The Notion

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The Machinery of Democracy

The great machinery of American democracy whirred into action thismorning, only to seize up and shut right down again--in precinct afterprecinct, county after county, and state after state. Some of the chaoswas widely forecast in an election in which one-third of the nation's precincts were deploying brand-new, technically suspect machinery for the first timeand pollworker training was spotty at best. Some of it was simply acontinuation of the inglorious American tradition of dirtyelectioneering.

More than forty precincts in Cleveland, Ohio--a city under the microscopeafter the controversies of the 2004 presidential race--couldn't gettheir electronic touch screen-terminals fired up on time. InIndianapolis, officials facing the same problem in more than 100precincts resorted to handing out paper ballots. In Delaware County, Indiana,northeast of the state capital, a programming error meant the votersmart cards would not work, prompting hours of delay and a courtpetition to keep the polls open an extra couple of hours. And that wasjust the situation before breakfast.

By mid-afternoon, the city of Denver was on the verge of the electoralbreakdown, as the computer terminals either seized up or broke down andthe paper ballots offered as a substitute started to run out. It tookBill Ritter, the Democratic candidate for governor, almost two hours tocast his vote. In New Jersey, Republicans complained that the machineswere rigged in favor of incumbent Democratic Senator Bob Menendez; inVirginia, where Democratic Senate candidate Jim Webb's name wastruncated on the interface of voting machines in several counties,Democrats complained that the machines were rigged in favor of theRepublicans.

The list of problem states encompassed almost the entire country:Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland,Maryland, Utah...Even where the machines started up correctly, there werecomplaints of screen freezes, votes for one candidate apparently beingmarked for another, optical scan readers that wouldn't read ballots, andmore.

And those were just the technical problems. In several heavily AfricanAmerican districts around the country, Republican operatives took a pageright out of the Jim Crow-Jesse Helms playbook, calling voters to tellthem their precinct location had changed when it hadn't, or warning themthey risked arrest if they showed up to vote, or trying to talk theminto believing the election was on Wednesday, not Tuesday. In heavilyAfrican-American Buckingham County, Virginia, a widely circulated flyerannounced in bold letters: "SKIP THIS ELECTION".

Virginia, with its pivotal Allen-Webb Senate race, appeared to sufferthe worst of these problems, but it was far from the only affectedstate. The Republican Party's "robo-call" campaign--repeat phone calls,many of them late at night, appearing to endorse Democratic candidatesbut really designed to dump dirt on them and deter voters from showingup at all--took place in twenty closely fought House districts across thecountry. The radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham, meanwhile, fouled upthe Democratic Party's voter complaint hotline by openly mocking it onair and reading out the freefone number several times. The hotlinereported a spike in crank calls, slowing down voters with bona fidecomplaints to lodge.

Will any of this affect the outcome of the election? In close races,absolutely it might. Several states have already either restricted oreliminated recount procedures--their idea of avoiding another meltdownlike Florida in 2000 – so transparency and accountability are alreadyshaky notions at best. If Allen and Webb, or any other two candidates,are just a few hundred or a few thousand votes apart by tomorrowmorning, there may be literally no way of knowing which is the deservingwinner. The attorneys, out in unprecedented force, will have their say,of course. But they are likely only to obscure things further.Elections, after all, are for the people to speak out, not the lawyers.

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