Playing hardball at the ballot box

The election may be over, but the bitter taste remains. No, I’m not just talking about four more years of Bush, although that is more than enough to turn my stomach. What really makes this whole thing hard to swallow is the increasing evidence that the Bush re-election crew played dirty — again — and it seems the Democrats still haven’t quite figured out how to design a comparable hardball strategy, the type of strategy that aims for the nuts with a sledgehammer.

Although there have been reports — and a lawsuit filed by Michigan Republican Party officials — alleging that Republican poll watchers in Detroit were wrongfully harassed and prevented from legally monitoring the voting process, I have a hard time believing that poor defenseless Republican vote challengers (many of whom drove several hours to make sure we nigras didn’t succumb to our natchul tendencies to do wrong) were mindlessly harassed for no reason as they politely and courteously monitored the polling places. There are more than a handful of documented cases of Republican challengers getting in peoples’ faces, and in Detroit that kind of behavior tends to provoke certain consequences. True enough, there have also been credible reports of Democratic vote challengers harassing Republican voters, but last I heard the Democrats weren’t filing any lawsuits whining about those mean little Republicans.

Anyway, here’s the thing: Until the Democrats regain that vicious, bloodthirsty streak — the kind of streak that placed both Kennedy and Johnson (two completely different people from completely different backgrounds with completely different styles but who shared the pit bull’s instinct for chomping down on the jugular) — in the White House, we might find ourselves shaking our heads and shaking our bloodied fists at God this same time four years from now. No, I’m not suggesting Democrats play dirty (well, not too dirty, anyway) or steal elections. What I am saying is that they need to brush up on their street fighting skills.

The reports are still trickling in, but so far it appears that many in the media were premature in declaring the election free of the kind of irregularities or voter intimidation that we saw in 2000. According to, there were two glaring examples of irregularities, including electronic voting machines in Broward County, Fla., that counted backward as more people voted, and an Ohio suburb that somehow managed to deliver a miraculous total of 4,258 votes for Bush even though only 638 people voted there.

And there’s more.

According to an Associated Press story, hundreds of irregularities affecting poor and minority voters were documented by the national voting rights group Count Every Vote 2004, an organization formed after the 2000 election to better protect the voting rights of “the marginalized sectors of the population.” Honorary co-chairs of the organization include the entertainer-activists Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover, and the Rev. C.T. Vivian, one of the civil rights movement’s most prominent members. According to Count Every Vote, the irregularities ranged from outright intimidation at the polls to faulty voting machines and excessively long lines that discouraged some from voting.

It may be weeks or more before the full range of shenanigans comes to light — and by then it won’t make much difference or many headlines anyway. But for those committed enough to follow the story, the results should spur a movement to be properly prepared come 2008. As the old saying goes, success is the best revenge, and the best hope for success is preparation long in advance.

On the local scene, some of you may recall an earlier column featuring Detroit-area activist Tom Kline, who has been involved in the ElectionProtection group’s effort to guard against voter intimidation at the polls. I recently received a call from Kline, who informed me that he and a friend involved in the poll-checking effort in Detroit received a number of reports of voter intimidation.

“At a polling place on the East Side, a poll worker had to kick the guy out because he was causing so much disruption. There was another instance on the southwest side on West Vernor where the people standing in line to vote were being told that their cars were being broken into outside. Of course nobody fell for that one.

“It’s kind of amazing some of the [Republican monitors] didn’t get their asses kicked, and it would have been justified in my opinion.”

Still, “I think they got a taste of what Detroit can be like when you get in peoples’ faces, OK?”

Mary Ellen Gurewitz, attorney for the Michigan Democratic Party, agrees that the Republican challengers were mostly unsuccessful, largely because of advance preparation by the Democrats who deployed more than 1,000 lawyers statewide.

“I think that had we not been ready it would have been more of a problem,” she says.

As I said before, the only way to turn this thing around is to immediately begin the arduous task of serious community organizing and political education. Sure, a large part of the reason why Bush won was because a majority of Americans actually believe Bush is right. Amazing, appalling, but true. It’s also true that the Bush people used the twin issues of gay marriage and abortion as a wedge to divide the electorate and to siphon off black evangelicals from the Democratic Party while energizing the Christian right.

But what should never be underestimated is how easy it is to manipulate the uninformed. Most Americans are poorly informed on the issues, mainly because it is so damned hard to get the real information in the land of infotainment in which we live. The sole purpose of an effective community organizing/political education effort must be to steadily provide that information so members of that community can make better decisions about the real issues most likely to actually have an impact on their lives; that shouldn’t be so easily derailed by some whistling idiot waving a picture of two men holding hands.

One obvious and beneficial side effect of such an effort would be poll workers better-trained and better-equipped to fend off vote challengers and others bent on disrupting and perverting the electoral process.

“That’s part of the problem is that you had poll workers who weren’t adequately trained,” Kline says. “It wasn’t just a problem with the challengers.”

Gurewitz concurs that there was a problem with poorly trained poll workers, but this wasn’t unique to Detroit, nor was it a new problem, she says. The real problem is that poorly trained poll workers, malfunctioning voter machines and other frustrating screw-ups have been infecting the system for years, especially in lower-income and minority neighborhoods. What was different in this particular election was that a much brighter light was being shone on the system’s failings thanks to the fiasco of Election 2000. Hopefully enough folks got sufficiently pissed off about the system’s inadequacies; hopefully their dissatisfaction will translate into pressure to bring about much-needed change in that system.

Bush now has another four years. Barring the unforeseen — and unlikely — blessing of an impeachment, there’s nothing much we can do about that. But we don’t need to remain in a bent-over position while biting down to keep from screaming while the Cowboy King drills us from the rear; we need to be use that pain and indignation to focus on repairing a nation that seems too anxious to forget that “We the People” means “them” plus “us,” not “them” minus “us.”

America equals all of us.

Keith Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]