by Joan Harvey
“Asked in an interview with Alex Jones, the far-right conspiracy theorist, what Trump should do against Democrats who “think they can steal” the election, Roger Stone — a close confidant of the president whose 40-month prison sentence for witness tampering and lying to Congress was commuted by Trump earlier this year — said that “the ballots in Nevada on election night should be seized by federal marshals and taken from the state” because “they are completely corrupted.” He also urged the president to declare “martial law” and invoke the Insurrection Act to arrest political opponents.” —Jamelle Bouie, “Trump’s Perverse Campaign Strategy” New York Times, September 15
“In case you didn’t notice, we’re being governed by armed thugs, criminals and traitors, who would as readily shoot you as spare you if it serves their purposes. This election is your last chance to save yourself and your family. Trust me, I’m not exaggerating. Not even a bit.” —Laurence Tribe @tribelaw on Twitter September 14
“I cannot speak with my voice, so I speak with my voices.” —Alejandra Pizarnik “Cornerstone” from A Musical Hell
Already Trump supporters are outside at the polls harassing voters. Like their president, they must know that without violence, intimidation, and voter suppression on their part, their candidate doesn’t have a chance. We’re more than a month out from the election but already the mob rule we’ve been expecting has begun. Trump says he may issue an executive order preventing Biden from being elected. And he is making a big issue about voter fraud (which is almost nonexistent) while at the same time suggesting people vote twice, no doubt in order to create voter fraud so he can blame that if he loses.
The despotism and desperation of this administration is very much out in the open, and his followers either approve of it or don’t care. An increasingly likely outcome to this election is that most Democrats, sanely not wanting to expose themselves to Covid-19 and harassment at the polls, will vote by mail, while Republicans will go in person to the polls. The mail-in ballots won’t be counted by election eve by states unaccustomed to mail-in voting (and could possibly be sabotaged by state officials who want a delay). Trump will declare victory that night, will be backed by the courts, and the actual result will not matter.
The president has indicated that he expects the courts to play a defining role in the election — by declaring a winner on election night, long before most mail ballots have been counted.
“We’re going to have a victory on November 3rd the likes of which you’ve never seen,” Trump said at a rally in Fayetteville, N.C., on Saturday night. “Now, we’re counting on the federal court system to make it so that we can actually have an evening where we know who wins, not where the votes are going to be counted a week later or two weeks later.”
In the past we have worried about voter suppression and voter intimidation, but never before in my lifetime has one election been so wrapped up in both terror and hope, in violence and insanity, in action both to protect the vote and to destroy it. The death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg opened people’s eyes even further to just how fragile our democracy is. Given the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have needlessly died due to Trump’s stunning incompetence and lack of concern in his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, the wretched state of the economy, the natural disasters displacing thousands, and the unbroken record of lies and deceit emanating from the Trump White House, it’s remarkable that a Biden win isn’t a foregone conclusion. But, of course, it isn’t. All our hope is pinned on the outcome of this election that must save us from the end of democracy and total catastrophe. When all the evidence is that things will go wrong, to have so much hope about a good outcome is possibly insane. And yet what else do we have?
Many say that if Trump wins again this will be our last free and fair election. But there’s little free and fair about it at the moment. Voters are up against massive and overt voter suppression, gerrymandering, hacking of voting machines, the electoral college, sabotage of the post office(!), a president who is bound to contest the vote if it doesn’t go his way, and a Supreme Court that will likely back him up. The GOP are trying to limit who votes in every possible way, including suing states that have enacted measures to encourage voters to vote by mail, preventing use of mail-ballot drop boxes, shutting down early voting, restricting voting on college campuses, and, especially, purging thousands of black and Democratic voters from the rolls, with no way for them to contest this purging. Dark money, from the Kochs, the Bradley Foundation, and the Waltons of Walmart, among others, help fund these purges. Republicans have known for decades that if every American had a vote, elections would not go their way. Trump himself has said that if people are allowed to vote, “You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Instead of making a conventional appeal to voters to give him another term in office, Trump is issuing a threat, of sorts: I cannot lose. If I do lose, the election was stolen. Anyone protesting my effort to hold onto power is an insurrectionist. And sometimes, “there has to be retribution.”
You can dismiss Trump’s statements as mere ranting and raving, but remember: This is a president who makes policy with his ranting and raving. And his allies, both in and out of government, have gotten the message.
Florida, which is key in this election, is notorious for voter suppression in every possible way. When voters decided felons who had served their sentences should be allowed to vote, the state legislature passed a law allowing voting only after the felons paid the sometimes enormous fees imposed at their sentencing, a type of poll tax. Worse, as Dexter Filkins explains in the New Yorker:
The burden was not just large but uncertain: state officials testified that they had no way of knowing how much money felons owe, or whether they have paid; those calculations would take six years or so to complete. The legislation gutted Amendment Four, but DeSantis claimed that he was merely enforcing the language that voters had approved. “The amendment does not apply to a felon who has failed to complete all the terms of his sentence,” he maintained.
Americans are increasingly waking up to the fact that we don’t have anything really resembling democracy here. That for every step forward toward a more equitable system the white forces in power push back. Our courts are now packed with Federalist judges, and of course gerrymandering has made democracy almost impossible in many regions of the country.
The word vote is from the Latin votum which meant “a vow, wish, promise to a god, solemn pledge, dedication. Vote is related to votary. Perhaps our election judges and poll watchers are our sacred temple keepers. Except that now, many are not. Republicans are recruiting 50,000 “poll watchers” (in other words, thugs) to intimidate voters of color and Democrats in general. While the needs of a diverse population are recognized by one party, the other party (the party that, according to Claudia Rankine, should be called the White Supremacist Party to describe it as it actually is), increasingly puts power in the hands of the very few. Voting should be how we have a voice as a society, how we can participate in the political, a way power is shared—except increasingly there is no sharing. Our democracy works so poorly because it is not really democracy. Which in turn causes citizens to question the value of democracy itself. Wendy Brown spells it out:
The English word “democracy” derives from ancient Greek terms, demos (the people) and kratos (power or rule). In contrast with oligarchy, monarchy, aristocracy, plutocracy, tyranny, and colonial rule, democracy signifies political arrangements through which a people rules itself. Political equality is democracy’s foundation. Everything else is optional—from constitutions to personal liberty, from specific economic forms to specific political institutions. Political equality alone ensures that the composition and exercise of political power is authorized by the whole and accountable to the whole. When political equality is absent, whether from explicit political exclusions or privileges, from extreme social or economic disparities, from uneven or managed access to knowledge, or from manipulation of the electoral system, political power will inevitably be exercised by and for a part, rather than the whole. The demos ceases to rule.
As Brown shows us, it has been the very successfully realized goal of neoliberals to undo the social and democratic version of political life, though they didn’t envision a Trump presidency. That they’ve succeeded is evidenced by the enormous number of people who didn’t bother to vote at all in 2016. Of course easy access to the voting process has long depended on how wealthy you are, how educated you are (which is often a factor of how wealthy you are), and where you live. In spite of attempts to limit voting, the right to vote has been understood to be so important that women and people of color have been tortured, beaten, imprisoned, and taxed, and yet still have continued to fight for their chance to have a voice. Each voice is a voice joined with others, a communal voice, and that is part of what makes election results so emotional, so prone to bring either elation or grief. So many people aren’t much heard in regular life: women of color, women in general, shy people, those with illness or disability, those who lack charisma, or time, or language, or knowledge of how to be heard. But in voting there’s a way to join with others, in spite of odds, in order to elect someone who will do her best to stand up for you.
Election outcomes depend not just on who is allowed to vote, but also on how votes are tallied. For years we’ve seen systematic and successful attempts at voter manipulation, suppression, and disenfranchisement, and we have no trouble accepting that these are real. But for some reason, the idea that votes themselves might be altered (either by programming of electronic voting machines or hacking) doesn’t get the same attention, and in fact the people who attempt to call attention to this problem, no matter how compelling their statistics are, are often treated like tin-hat conspiracy theorists. Making matters worse, we have no way to audit many elections—no paper trail, no way to gauge the accuracy of the numbers spit out of the electronic vote counters. We are told two things meant to reassure us: first, that elections are so decentralized and locally run that it would be very difficult to mess with voting tallies on a large scale, and second, that voting machines are not connected to the internet. It’s true that our voting system is decentralized and run by state and county officials, but once we switched to computerized voting, multiple channels of attack were opened that didn’t exist in the era of hand-marked paper ballots and hand counting of votes. And in many jurisdictions, voting equipment is in fact connected to the internet, at least temporarily. Andrew Appel, a Princeton computer science professor and expert on elections, explains: “Once a hacker starts talking to the voting machine through the modem, the hacker cannot just change these unofficial election results, they can hack the software in the voting machine and make it cheat in future elections.”
For years, computerized election results have consistently shown voting shifts to the right of where polls indicated they would come out, from statehouse elections to the US House of Representatives, the Senate, and the presidency. Instead of doubting the voting machine tabulations, pundits have attacked the reliability of exit polls. As Jonathan D. Simon says in Code Red: Computerized Elections and the War on American Democracy:
The problem with the Great Exit Poll Debate is that it is fated to be inconclusive because neither side has access to the evidence that could resolve it: neither raw exit poll data (a simple, unweighted tally of individual responses to the exit poll questionnaires) nor voter-marked ballots are publicly accessible; both are held to be proprietary and off-limits. So what we have is in essence a concealed counting system alongside a concealed polling system, neither of which is self-evidently accurate.
…As of 2012 the vote-counting corporations had been whittled down to two principals—ES&S and the whimsically named Dominion Voting—that between them controlled the computers that counted the vast majority of the votes in America…When you trace the pedigree of these vendors, every road seems to lead back to the right wing: wealthy Texas oilmen, fanatical Fundamentalists, major Republican donors, and prominent Republican politicians…It is, all told, one of the shadowiest industries in America.
It’s quite possible that electronic tampering will change enough votes so that Trump wins by just a small enough margin to appear legitimate, even though there is no evidence that he will win in reality. This mess has been a long time in the making, ever since we switched to computer voting and didn’t bother to put any transparency into the system, and let a few right-wing corporations handle all the machines with their own proprietary software.
I live in one of the few states where we feel very safe about our vote. In Colorado we got to vote by mail beginning in 2014 and it has worked brilliantly. In the last election Colorado had the second highest turnout rate in the country. And our mail-in ballots don’t just disappear into the mailbox; we get a message that our ballot has been received and accepted, we’re secure that it will be counted, and of course we can choose to go in and vote in person instead. It has been shown that mail-in ballots don’t favor Democrats over Republicans, and that when Coloradans switched to voting by mail the increased turnout for both parties was almost identical. Our Secretary of State, a young tech-savvy firebrand, Jena Griswold, is on top of every possible way voting could be stolen from us. She has vastly increased the number of drop boxes for ballots by 49% since 2018, just in case our postal system is completely hijacked. She is working nationally to help protect the vote. She has contingency plans in case of an active shooter, floods, or fire. Contingency plans on top of contingency plans. At the moment she’s suing the postal service for mailing out false voting information in a blatant attempt to confuse voters. So far, she has won in the courts, but who knows what next steps DeJoy will take. I suspect that it had occurred to none of us that our beloved old postal service would become a tool for lying and distrust and voter suppression. Still, Colorado is one of the few places in the nation where our voting is probably still safe, though of course now Griswold has to consider the possibility of federal troops showing up at polling places.
On another note, there are clearly going to be a lot of destructive protest votes in such a crucial election. And just as nothing convinces Trump supporters (though some are falling from the fold) of the extreme damage he does to America and the world, nothing much convinces the purity squad that their vote for a third-party candidate, or not voting this election, is actually not a useful act. While they have no problems understanding there are two teams in football, in an election somehow reason goes out the window. The protest vote has been time tested and has not resulted in anything good; take the Iraq War, and ignoring global warming for starters. This is not to suggest that our two-party system is a successful system, only that its workings are fairly obvious—and yet an astounding number of people don’t seem to get that. There are still people proud of voting for Jill Stein. On the other side, a friend whose family immigrated from Central America and who used to vote for Democrats recently become convinced by propaganda (see also The Social Dilemma) that Biden is a radical Communist/Socialist, so she will vote for Trump. And I’m sure she is not alone.
So we lie awake worrying more than we ever have before about all that could go wrong with the vote, hoping that somehow it will go right. People are creative, active, passionate, not only writing thousands of postcards and letters to get out the vote, but also producing and distributing these postcards to go out to others. Friends do art projects about the vote, make phone calls, text, register everyone they can. In Denver there are going to be marches to the polls through historically black and latinx neighborhoods. There are going to be low-riders to the polls. The election is the main thing (except of course the Supreme Court, Covid-19, not having money for rent, floods, and and fires) on anyone’s mind.
Joshua Yaffa pointed out in an article on Russian manipulation of our elections that probably our best defense is a society educated to recognize media manipulation. This carries over to understanding voting and each citizen’s role in our unfortunately not very democratic society. Yaffa points out that in 2016 “only twenty-three percent of eighth graders performed at or above the proficiency level on a nationwide civics exam.” His advice is certainly sound, and yet probably too late.
Today, there is no question that there are far more voices who don’t support the current administration than those who do, or all these tactics by the GOP to prohibit voting would be unnecessary. Trump will cast doubt on the results, allege voter fraud, use whatever military tactics he can muster to stay in power. He will encourage violence, seizing of ballots, or stopping counting of ballots, or he will find a way through some manufactured crisis to declare the election invalid or cancel it altogether. There are two probable outcomes on November 4th: either we wake up and, contrary to all exit polls and with many votes still to be counted, Trump is declared the winner (at least of the electoral college), or we wake up and Biden is declared the winner but Trump refuses to accept the results and refuses to concede. Then we have weeks and months of chaos, with Republican Secretaries of State refusing to count ballots, and Trump urging his people out onto the streets with guns, and calling out ICE and the other unidentified armed para-military forces he’s already been using to put down protests, and most likely the Supreme Court gets involved again. If, as seems likely, a new right-wing Justice has been installed before November 3rd, the Supreme Court very well might hand the election to Trump. If Biden wins by anything other than an overwhelming margin, the Republicans will challenge it and we have to hope Biden doesn’t roll over and concede, which has certainly been the pattern of Democrats in the past.
I confess when I think of voting I’m reminded of Dr. Seuss’s Whos in Whoville, who are so tiny they can’t be heard until they all make noise together, and unless they are heard the fate of their minuscule planet is at stake. (Coincidentally one of the villains trying to get rid of them is a black-bottomed eagle named Vlad Vlad-i-koff.) At last one tiny little voice joins in and makes the difference:
“That one small, extra Yopp put it over!
Finally, at last! From that speck on that clover
Their voices were heard! They rang out clear and clean.”
(I’m not going to quote the next line as it involves an elephant smiling, which is not what I want.) The refrain of the book is “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” Something the party of Trump has completely and willfully forgotten.
The question is, will those voices that have not been heard, but this time finally make the effort to vote, or fight to have a voice, be silenced by an angry mob? Will this in turn lead to despair at our system and even more giving up? And when the post-election dust has settled, will we have anything resembling democracy in this country again?
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Wendy Brown, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West (Columbia University Press, 2019), 23
Jonathan Simon, Code Red: Computerized Election Theft and the New American Century (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016)
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I want to thank Ann Harvey for her input on problems with voting machines, and A Creative Resistance for their artwork and activism, and all the others determined not give in or give up.