Thomas Jefferson was not anticipating a summer holiday when he told the Marquis de Lafayette, "The boisterous sea of liberty indeed is never without a wave." In this summer of our discontent, the wave of liberty must take the form of popular pressure for electoral reforms that restore the badly battered promise of American democracy.
In Philadelphia, where Jefferson and his comrades created a monumental wave back in 1776, a new generation of democratic revolutionaries will stir the waters on the eve of July 4. The National Pro-Democracy Convention organized by the Institute for Policy Studies, the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus and other groups seeks to jump-start a voting rights movement that could fundamentally alter the way in which America conducts elections.
The necessity of such a movement is beyond debate. And never will its potential for success be greater than this year - when the wounds of the electoral disaster of Nov. 7, 2000, remain raw.
Florida's fiercely flawed election - which was characterized by what the U.S. Civil Rights Commission called "injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency" - was the canary in the coal mine. The canary died, saddling the land with the unjust and inept presidency of Jeb Bush's older brother. But Florida was never the worst of it. Election officials discarded more presidential ballots in Illinois than Florida - 3.9 out of every 100 in the Land of Lincoln to just 2.9 percent in the Sunshine State. Across the United States, more than 2 million votes went uncounted last November, leading Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy to observe, "Your vote certainly counts. On the other hand, your vote may not be counted." Millions of additional votes are denied by restrictive registration laws, failed implementation of the federal "motor voter" law and bars on voting by former prisoners.
The denial of the franchise is most troubling because of the race and class bias that underpins it. African-American voters were 10 times more likely than white voters to have ballots rejected in Florida. Residents of the state's poorest counties were twice as likely as residents of rich counties to have votes discarded.
Americans have a right - make that a responsibility - to be angry. But we cannot squander that anger in well-meaning but unfocused activism. With Democrats back in control of the U.S. Senate, there is an opportunity to crystallize the energy of the new voting rights movement by passing the Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act. Sponsored by Senate Rules Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, this bill addresses fundamental issues of access and equal opportunity. It also sets universal standards for voting machines, declaring, "The error rate in counting and tabulating ballots must be as close to zero as possible." And it walks the walk by authorizing $700 million to pay for voting systems upgrades and education.
The Dodd-Conyers bill will not cure all of what ails American democracy. But with the support of the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, the National Council of LaRaza, the National Organization for Women, the National Federation of the Blind and more than 80 members of the House, it is the crest of the wave of reform that must sweep the nation.
The new voting rights movement should surf that wave, focusing energy on forcing action on this bill by this Congress. As U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., says, "It's not the act of voting that is democracy, instead it's the counting of those votes that measures the value of our democracy." Democracy was devalued in America last year. It will only be revalued if a wave of liberty demands passage of the Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act this year.
Copyright 2001 The Capital Times