Riding Shotgun: Democracy — Let’s Not Fuck It Up This Time

We’re looking at you, Florida.

One day left until election day and there’s only one thing on everybody’s mind, the same thing that’s dominated the 24-hour news cycle for what seems like an eternity: Ashlee Simpson can’t sing.

I know, I know. I’m dumbfounded as well. What is the world coming to when a world class talent like Ashlee stoops to using electronic voice recordings to bolster her live performance? I am shocked. And maybe a little awed.

And then there’s the election thingy. You know, the one that Eminem is singing about in that song, Slap Them Bitches Like Bush Slapped Baghdad.

Or something like that. Raise your hand if you weren’t going to vote on Tuesday until Slim Shady rapped to you. Okay, now take that hand, pick up a gardening tool, and plunge it deep into your eye socket. Good, now doesn’t the rest of the world feel better?

Moving on.

It’s like a roller coaster. It really is. I look ahead and I see the dips and the drops and the turns and the loop-dee-loops and I know it’s going to be a gut-wrenching mess. I’m already feeling nauseated.

That’s the election for me. A roller coaster ride. I hate roller coaster rides. They’re run by zit-faced teenagers who look like they’ve been huffing nitrous behind the Tilt-a-Whirl.

The seatbelt’s always feel too loose. And then there’s that pesky little problem of gravity. And I know that when it’s over I’ll look back on it with a feeling that it was a lot more fun than it actually was. Or I’ll be dead, my corpse flung a hundred yards to land in the cotton candy machine, resulting in a mangled mess of torn flesh and broken glass and pink spun sugar.

And it’s already started. As I write this four days before the election, the roller coaster is really starting to move. The inertia’s been broken for the final run. We’re beyond the slow, moving over the cross-ties, thunk-thunk-thunk stage. The accusations are flying from both camps. Every news story, from missing explosives in Iraq to the Michigan Woman’s League Apple Pie Howdy Doody Bake-Off, is doctored for spin.

And the polls. Oh, sweet fucking Christ, the polls. I forgot how this can be in a close race. The national polls are nothing now. Put them together and they average out to a 50/50 race. It’s the state polls that are driving people crazy. First Michigan’s wrapped up. Then it’s back in play. Everyone and their grandpappy is polling in Ohio. And don’t even speak to me about Florida.

Also, incumbent and challenger are flitting back and forth, trying to shore up votes in the “hotly contested battleground states.” Somebody really should have trademarked that phrase. Both campaigns are so frenzied in this undecideds snipe hunt that I’m surprised both candidates don’t stroke out.

Right now, I’m just holding my breath.

But whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, the worst thing that can happen on November 2 will not necessarily be a victory by the opposition. The worst thing will be no clear victory at all. It happened in 2000 and we weren’t expecting so close a vote. This time we are, and many of the problems — let’s face it, most of the problems that led to the recount and the re-recount and the subsequent disenfranchisement haven’t been solved. They’ve only been shuffled around a little bit.

We got rid of the paper ballots and the hanging chads, replacing them with computerized, touch-screen voting. I’m 26 and I’m intimidated when I use one of these things. Imagine how Grandma Ethel in Sarasota is going to feel. We’ve got four generations of Americans who grew up pre-analog, much less pre-digital, and we expect them not to be intimidated by these ATMs on smack.

Back when I worked for a local weekly newspaper, I got a close look at the new touch-screen machines (new at the time, anyway). A manufacturer representative was there and I asked him what kind of back-up system it had. A computerized one, he said. No messy paper to deal with. And I commented that wouldn’t it be better to have a paper back-up in case somebody strolled by with a magnet hooked up to a car battery.

Yeah, there was no answer for that one. If the ballots (or whatever the hell you call them since there are no actual ballots) are questioned, there’s no paper back up. If the technology is called into question, which fuck-ups in early voting in Florida (yes, that’s right, it’s Florida again, the special needs state) almost guarantee there will be, then there’s no other way to verify.

How hard would it be to design one of these machines to print out two receipts that show how a person voted: One to be given to the person, the other to be safely stored in case it’s ever needed?

Anyhow, back to the worst thing that could happen.

We’ve got more registered voters than ever before. Good thing.

We’ve got more registered voters that can be challenged. Bad thing.

A New York Times article last week shows that the Republican machine in Ohio is hiring hundreds of vote challengers (these are people who will stand at the polls and challenge whether someone is registered properly, i.e. lives where they say they live, is actually a citizen, etc.). They say it’s not to intimidate, but merely to ensure a fair and equitable election.

The Democrat machine in Ohio has hired even more people to help shepherd voters past these challengers and ensure that they aren’t intimidated.

Just hearing about this makes me want to kneecap somebody. This is the sort of shit that went on fifty years ago in union elections. I imagine a line of monkey-wrench hefting ballbreakers ready to cave in some skulls if people don’t vote party line. Whether that’s the Republicans’ intention or not, that’s what it looks like, and that makes it just as bad.

If what happened in 2000 happens now, when the electorate is already polarized beyond reconciliation, do you think anyone is going to have any faith left in the system? Any at all?

Oh Canadaaaa, my something something blah blah blaaaaah?

Well, I was bitching in a column a few months ago about how the youngest voting demographic refrains from voting in record numbers. And a lot of these new registrations are from that 18 to 20-something age group, so I guess that makes me happy.

So great. Excellent. Let’s not fuck it up for these first-timers. I gotta go. I live in Northern Virginia and I’ve just been told my state’s back in play.

Final message: Vote. I’m not going to say who you should vote for. Personally, I’m going to vote for John Kerry because three years after 9/11 I’m more afraid of the man currently sitting in the Oval Office than any group of terrorists, and I really think it’s about damned time we elected a Commander in Chief who can windsurf.

But remember: It’s not who you vote for that matters. It’s the importance of taking part in the system, no matter how litigious and deeply flawed it may get.

See you on the other side.

Article © 2004 by Steve Spotswood