There is nothing George Bush likes more than extolling the virtues of democracy in faraway places. On October 8, during the second presidential debate, he promised: "Freedom is on the march. Tomorrow, Afghanistan will be voting for a president." Apparently some Afghans enjoyed their new freedoms so much, they voted for the US surrogate, Hamid Karzai, several times over, after the ink used to mark voters' thumbs wore off. By the middle of the day, all 15 of Karzai's challengers had withdrawn. Freedom was not even limping let alone marching.
"Today's election is not a legitimate election," said Abdul Satar Sirat, after he and the other disgruntled candidates had met in his house. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, knew better. "This election is going to be judged legitimate," she said. "I'm just certain of it." When it comes to fixing elections, the Bush administration has a way of making the lame walk.
By Monday an exit poll funded by the US government and conducted by the International Republican Institute, which has links to the Republican party, revealed Karzai as a comfortable winner. After diplomatic arm-twisting by the US ambassador, the 15 challengers withdrew their withdrawals. It was a miracle. A few days later, in the final presidential debate, Bush would literally claim divine intervention. "In Afghanistan, I believe that the freedom there is a gift from the Almighty."
Back in the US, however, the Almighty seems far less generous. Bush's enthusiasm to export democracy is not matched by his desire to defend it at home. With just a fortnight to go to the presidential election, efforts to obstruct and deny the vote, particularly to black and Latino voters, are intensifying. Forty years after the civil rights act enshrined the franchise in the constitution for African-Americans, freedom is being crippled.
The group most likely to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they are ostensibly extending democracy and freedom - African-Americans - is most likely to be denied those rights in the US. There is nothing new in this contradiction. In the cold war, when the US lectured the eastern bloc on the delights of democracy, black Americans couldn't vote.
The issue of disenfranchisement does not affect only minorities. The use of electronic voting in many states, using machines that leave no paper trail, has sent confidence that a fair election is likely, or even possible, into freefall. Once dismissed as the obsession of conspiracy theorists, fear of fraud is now mainstream. "Will your vote be counted?" asks the cover of Newsweek. "Election protests already started: Fraud intimidation alleged in key states," says a USA Today front page.
The former employee of a company hired by the Republican party to register voters in Nevada says he was told to throw Democrats' registration forms away. And last January, the Republican Ellyn Bogdanoff won a seat in Florida's senate by just 12 votes, out of almost 11,000 cast. According to state law there should have been an automatic recount; moreover, 137 votes emerged blank. But because the voting had been done by machine there was nothing to recount. Bogdanoff took the seat. The machines will be used on November 2.
Sometimes these efforts bear the official imprimatur of local officials. Given the debacle in Florida four years ago, you would think the governor (Bush's brother Jeb) would be anxious to ensure that anyone who wants to vote can. Instead he has introduced a rule that registration forms should be rejected if a citizenship check box is not complete - even when people have signed an oath on the same form declaring themselves to be US citizens. Meanwhile Ohio's Republican secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, attempted to enforce a rule by which only registration cards printed on heavy, 80lb paper stock would be accepted, claiming lighter cards might be shredded by postal equipment (meaning that voters who have to re-register on the heavier paper might not make it on time). And last summer the chief executive of Diebold, which makes many of the voting machines, said he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes" to Bush.
African-Americans, however, remain the principal target of the Republican campaign to block the vote. Unlike the 60s, when black Americans were barred from the polls by police dogs, water cannon and billy clubs, the means today are more refined. Occasionally the mask slips. In July, John Pappageorge, Michigan's Republican state legislator, told a Republican meeting: "If we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we're going to have a tough time in this election cycle." Detroit is more than 80% black. It does not take a genius to work out whose votes he was keen to suppress.
So far it has mainly been a mix of petty harassment and bureaucratic pedantry, devised to intimidate newly registered and poor voters, a huge proportion of whom are black and Latino. Take Florida. According to the Washington Post, African-Americans in Republican-run Duval county were the most likely to have their voter registration forms rejected, while rejections for Democrats outnumbered Republicans by three to one. In 2000, 42% of ballots rejected by the Duval county election board came from mainly black areas.
In Ohio, Mr Blackwell also told election boards that anyone who turned up at the wrong polling station would not be able to cast a provisional ballot (to be verified later). The Democrats successfully sued, saying that the ruling would disadvantage minority and poor voters, who tend to move more often.
It is not difficult to fathom what is driving these efforts, which are being replicated throughout the country. The best indication of how an American will vote is race. More than 80% of African-Americans voted Democrat in the last election. Incapable of persuading them to vote Republican, Republicans now seek to prevent them voting Democrat.
This task has become particularly urgent because voter registration recently ended in many states, revealing that voter rolls in black and Latino areas have swollen in far greater numbers than in Republican precincts. Between the last election and August this year, almost 200,000 additional black voters were registered in Florida.
So while these attempts are clearly racial in nature, they are essentially partisan in motivation. With apologies to Malcolm X, they are about winning by any means necessary. Republicans support democracy when democracy supports Republicans. But they are equally happy to do without it when it is inconvenient. That was always true abroad, from Venezuela to Nicaragua and Pakistan to Saudi Arabia. Now it is true at home, from Detroit to Duval County.
Freedom is on the retreat. And the man who assumed office four years ago thanks to thousands of disenfranchised black voters is again leading the charge.
© 2004 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.