Jerri-Lynn here. This post analyzes the Republican crusade to deny people of color and the poor their right to vote. It should be read in conjunction with the Bill Moyers essay I posted earlier today here, as Rosenfeld’s post and Palast’s film describe practical details about the disenfranchisement that continues to occur and makes plutocratic control possible.
But regular readers know that Republican shenanigans are only one side of the story and that Democrats, too have failed to register and mobilize members of what has sometimes been called the party of non-voters. Despite the Republican activities described below, if Democrats worked to expand the electorate, by encouraging those who have never voted or don’t regularly vote to do so, more democratic (I emphasize the small d here) policies would follow.
As I recently posted here, it doesn’t have to be like this and countries such as India can teach the US much about free and fair elections. Politics might be much more responsive to the will of the voters rather than the whims of oligarchs if we got serious about countering the forces that systematically seek to deny people their right to vote.
By Steven Rosenfeld, who covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of “Count My Vote: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting” (AlterNet Books, 2008). Cross posted from Alternet.
Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court stopped a Florida recount and awarded the White House to George W. Bush in 2000, every presidential election has seen an array of activists, investigative reporters and even candidates predict it will be stolen and sabotaged by scheming operatives using the darkest of political arts.
The 2016 election has witnessed more of this than ever. There’s Donald Trump, suggesting the vote will be rigged, unless of course, he wins. There’s the FBI saying Russians hacked into the state voter registration databases in Arizona and Illinois, prompting the federal government and states to launch new voting security squads. There’s longtime civil rights leaders bemoaning the Supreme Court’s 2013 gutting by its conservative majority of the enforcement provisions in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This has sparked many red states to adopt an array of anti-voter laws making it harder for poor people and minorities to register, requiring people to obtain state photo IDs and eliminating options like early voting, weekend voting and same-day registration.
As court fights challenging these anti-democratic tactics play out with eight weeks to go before the election, you can be sure the public and poll workers in affected states will be left confused, facing any number of delays and snafus. And then there’s the fact that America’s voting infrastructure is seriously aging, with computers typicall a dozen years old and running on Windows 2000 or XP, prone to breakdowns, and in some cases hackable.
A new movie and book by Greg Palast, the investigative reporter who first uncovered the way Florida Republicans intentionally purged tens of thousands of voters before the 2000 presidential election (followed by officials in the state’s black belt counties disqualifying more than 100,000 “spoiled” ballots), raises new threats to what we’re told is a democratic process. In The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: A Tale of Billionaires and Ballot Bandits, Palast, with equal parts humor and indignation, calls the 2016 election “a crime still in progress and a hunt for the guys who will do it.”
Though Palast shrewdly follows up, saying, “I don’t have a clue” as to the shape 2016’s assault on popular democracy will assume, he has some good ideas about where to start looking. His onscreen trek takes viewers on a two-hour journey in which he cleverly shows the pattern that has dominated American presidential elections since 2000. What is different about this Palast film is that he connects dots to explain why this is happening, who is benefiting, how the dirty business is done, and who the likely villains in 2016 are.
Half of the the film contains entertaining scenes of Palast preparing to chase down and ambush elected Republicans like Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who built his political career by defending the rights of white people and vilifying immigrants. Kobach now runs an exceptionally flawed interstate computer operation that tries to track down people who are registered to vote in more than one state. His operation, called Interstate Crosscheck, assumes that any two people with the same name—or similar enough sounding names even if a middle initial varies—are readymade voting criminals who need to be purged from voter rolls. That sounds almost comical except this operation is taken seriously in states like Georgia, where the secretary of state hands a list to the attorney general, who in turn hands a list to lowly county officials and then begins the process of targeting and removing legal voters. As Palast’s onscreen data analysts note, a disproportionate number of people with similar sounding names happen to be non-white, which correlates with likely Democratic voters.
Crosscheck’s data is so blurry and the election officials who defend it are so opaque that Palast raises a point that is easily lost in the details and weeds of trying to understand why America’s system of voting isn’t more simple and straightforward. He posits that it is intentionally designed to be sloppy so it victimizes more likely minority and low-income voters. A variation on this political tactic is the intentional complexity many red states are imposing on these very same populations. Newly adopted legal technicalities, such as not having proper state ID, not properly filling out ballots and having ballots that are disqualified for “spoilage,” are wielded by white Republicans who fear an epidemic of double voting, voter fraud and other imagined ballot security nightmares that never seem to materialize on Election Day.
Why don’t Republicans want people of color and poor people voting? That becomes clear as Palast chases after billionaires who made fortunes in 2008’s global financial meltdown, such as hedge fund manager John Paulson and international vulture capitalist John Singer. There is no such thing as a billionaire whose fortune hasn’t left a trail of pain, Palast notes as he visits their victims and gets stone-faced answers when confronting these men at high society gatherings. Palast’s point is the only way that billionaires can get away with their obscene profiteering is by taking away the voting rights of the people they prey on.
The film shows how the nation’s most notorious and rapacious libertarians, the Koch brothers of Kansas, are bankrolling many of the front groups and elected Republicans who have shredded voting rights. The Kochs were behind the Texas-based group whose lawsuit successfully gutted the Voting Rights Act. (In Alabama, where that suit was filed, right after the ruling came down in 2013 the state quickly passed a law requiring voters have a new ID that can be obtained at the state motor vehicle agency, but then closed those DMVs across their black belt counties.) The Kochs also bankrolled one of Kobach’s pro-white, anti-immigrant lawsuits in which he personally pocketed tens of thousands of dollars, Palast reports.
But at its heart, the film’s message transcends the devilish details of voter suppression, partisan institutional racism and unrepentant billionaire greed. Exercising right to vote is about breaking the grip billionaires and oligarchs have on the economy, pushing people to needless suffering so an elite can profit and live exorbitantly. When citizens don’t vote, when elections are perpetually fraudulent, when there is no mandate for systemic change, the status quo of money, power and influence reigns.
The Best Democracy Money Can Buy previewed at the Grand Theater in Oakland, Calif. In his remarks to the sold-out crowd, Palast said the mainstream American media won’t touch this topic. That’s not exactly correct. Mainstream media is covering Trump’s prediction that the November election will be stolen. It’s covering the Russian hack of state voter registration databases in Arizona and Illinois. It’s covering voting rights litigation in red states targeting minorities. But it’s not conecting the dots and seeing the big picture.
Palast’s profile of Crosscheck is the centerpiece of a soon-to-be-launched campaign by the Congressional Black Caucus to force Kobach’s operation to release all of the 7 million names of purportedly duplicate voter registrations, so people can see if they are listed and correct any mistake. The easiest way to do that is just re-register, Palast told the audience. (Not in the film are more recent efforts by some of these states to use better data-mining to identify voters who moved, died, or are eligible but unregistered—and to contact them and urge then to register.)
But Palast’s profile of Crosscheck’s messy handling of voter registration files is prescient in a way he likely could not have envisioned when chasing Kobach and other billionaires and parsing Crosscheck’s 2014 duplicate voter lists. The film highlights the fact that sullying voter rolls, either with bad software or intentionally removing blocks of minority voters, is as sure a way to game election outcomes as tampering with the actual vote and count.
This summer’s hack by Russians into Arizona and Illinois voter registration databases shows that those data systems—which are separate from the vote counting and tabulation machinery—are vulnerable. If partisan Republicans like Kobach can wreak havoc on the registration side of the process with Crosscheck, so can outsiders who have already breached data walls.
Greg Palast doesn’t know what will happen with America’s wobbly voting machinery in 2016. But his film points out there are many ways that knowledgeable insiders want voting to be anything but a straightforward and democratic process. He shows how that serves the richest Americans whose fortunes come from preying on the public. That is why voting is so critical, Palast reminds viewers, and why so many powerful interests don’t want every citizen to exercise that right.