Democracy Free-for-All

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Democracy Free-for-All

People wait in line outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, to listen to oral arguments in the Shelby County, Ala., v. Holder voting rights case. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

Here in America, we celebrate democracy by staying in touch with the lack of it. What better way to honor our ancestors’ struggles to win the right to vote — and have that vote counted — than to have to struggle ourselves for the same thing?

Considering that, as I wrote four years ago, “democracy is nothing if not a perpetual nuisance to the powerful,” and that apathy is the national curse, I remain amazed that we’re having a presidential race this year that cuts so deeply — to core human values — and is worth enduring a sort of bureaucratic totalitarianism to participate in.

This is not the intention of our system’s alleged guardians, of course, and they need to be watched far more carefully than the mainstream media regards as necessary. What we live in is not so much a democratic republic as a sociopolitical free-for-all, not quite in anyone’s control.

The forces of political centrism, which includes the mainstream media, like to think that they’re in control, and endlessly purvey the message that America-brand democracy is the best in the world. Because this message is straight-on public relations (which used to be called propaganda), it’s untarnished by reality, e.g.:

“The frustrating waits,” according to the Associated Press, “come after the Arizona legislature slashed funding last year for counties to carry out the presidential election. Election officials in Phoenix responded with scaled-back polling, citing a lack of money and the belief that people would vote by mail.”

How much is democracy worth?

On March 22, as we know, Arizona’s primary election degenerated into a fiasco in Phoenix’s Maricopa County, where County Recorder Helen Purcell (a Republican) had cut the number of polling places by a stunning 70 percent, from 211 in 2112 to 60 this year, one polling site for every 108,000 residents of the ethnically diverse (non-majority-white) city. Many determined voters had to wait in line five or six hours to cast their ballots and some of the polling sites didn’t close till nearly 1 a.m.

And, oh yeah, the state’s independent voters were totally shafted. Their votes didn’t count at all, apparently unbeknownst to those who waited hours in line. Only registered Republicans or Democrats could cast a primary ballot. Thus, as many as 24,000 provisional ballots were thrown out, election analyst Ari Berman told Amy Goodman at Democracy Now.

And this, too, is what democracy looks like: determination pushing, not always successfully, against power and bureaucracy. Democracy is an inner urgency far more than it’s a settled political system. The United States does not embrace the idea that the more eligible voters who actually vote, the better we are as a nation. Indeed, beyond voting rights for white, male property owners, voting eligibility has accrued only to those who claimed it after a long, bitter struggle. Deep wariness of actual democracy is still very much who we are as a nation.

For a serious bloc of the nation’s power holders, democracy is primarily a dangerous energy flow that has to be gamed and controlled, not accommodated. What matters is maintaining power, not making it easier for have-nots to vote.

Democracy, I wrote during the last presidential go-around, “asserts that public policy is everyone’s business, and that the concerns of even the most financially and socially marginal citizens are equal to those of the most elite. Indeed, no one is marginal in a democracy — a concept we embrace as a nation but don’t believe. And thus citizens are marginalized all the time.”

Meet, for instance, Wisconsin resident Dennis Hatten, one of the 300,000 or so registered voters in the state whose enfranchisement may have been thrown into jeopardy by the state’s controversial new voter ID law. These are the people I call the complexly struggling: economically and perhaps physically marginalized people for whom transportation and various bureaucratic costs, which may run more than $100 (to get such things as new birth certificates), are extremely difficult to meet and constitute a latter-day poll tax.

As ThinkProgress reported recently: “Thanks to an error on (Hatten’s) birth certificate, the formerly homeless Marine Corps veteran spent months working with the voting rights groups Citizen Action and Vote Riders, finally obtaining a state ID just in time to vote.”

The ordeal “involved countless phone calls, assistance from volunteer lawyers, and trips to the DMV. If he had children, he said, or multiple jobs, he may have given up.”

Allegedly, such laws are meant to control voter fraud, the power elite’s red herring of the moment — as though people voting twice were a real problem. Federal Judge Richard Posner wrote in a dissent to the Wisconsin law that “since 2000 there have been only ten cases of in-person voter fraud that could have been prevented by photo ID laws. Out of 146 million registered voters, this is a ratio of one case of voter fraud for every 14.6 million eligible voters — more than a dozen times less likely than being struck by lightning.”

But you’ve got to cut democracy-wary pols and their corporate puppeteers some slack. They can’t just ban certain classes of likely hostile voters from the voting booth, like they could in the old days. They have to operate under the cover of democracy-protecting legitimacy — just as the U.S. military, which maintains a bottomless budget even as state legislatures slash funding to hold elections, has to keep telling us it’s protecting the country from terrorists.

As Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman wrote recently, there does remain a second option for the powerful: “flipping” the vote on electronic voting machines. The electronic vote count simply cannot be verified.

“Virtually all these machines are 10 years old or more, and can easily be hacked,” they write. “Swing states Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and Arizona, among others, have GOP governors and, except for Florida, secretaries of state who can easily flip the vote counts, once they are cast, without accountability or detection. Also, private partisan voting machine companies have unlimited access to the electronic poll books, voting machines and central tabulators.”

In 2016, democracy is doing its best to survive the free-for-all. So many Americans — the young, the impoverished, the watchful — in their determination to safeguard the democratic process or, simply, to cast their votes, are, let us hope, causing the arc of change to bend beyond the reach of the powerful.

Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at

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