In 2012, this is our truth: an unprecedented weather catastrophe has devastated several states shortly before a very close presidential election; most Americans are voting on ballots and machines organized and owned by private corporations; election administrators are terminally understaffed while both presidential campaigns have thousands of lawyers ready to accuse the other of voter fraud; the national media is run by giant corporations, not even by families or bases of power; there is no tangible national voting rights movement to keep them in check and the American are barely people informed of all it. There is no better time than the present for American citizens to take a look at the history of presidential elections through the lens of the Electoral College.
Call it Democracy is a feature documentary created with this intention. Of all the films that came out in the aftermath of Florida 2000, ours is the most in-depth and wide ranging presentation of potent facts and history about our republic, its democratic aspects, opportunities and barriers. After years of film festivals, universities, and community activism screenings, Call it Democracy will air on the Documentary Channel, Nov. 3 (8pm and 11pm EST) and Nov. 5 (4pm EST).
A week after the Supreme Court stopped the vote count in Florida, I sat down for drinks with a very good friend. As a lawyer, he was adamant that Gore v. Bush was illegal. I found that hard to believe. I was a news junkie and I never saw any expert on TV say that. But this question was also an opening. If I misunderstood the opinion, probably most of us did. What conclusions did regular American people come to during the preceding six weeks? I didn't have a time machine, but as the drinks settled in, I developed a plan to find out what the American people knew -- and when they knew it.
The next the morning, all my friends had received an email, asking them to take part in creating a film that would be an oral history of the election. "Go into your community," my email read, "Ask about everything that happened. From going to vote, to what people read in newspapers, on the Internet, saw on TV and spoke to friends about. How did their opinions develop and change? How did they feel about the press coverage? What did they do when the vote count was stopped in Florida?"
Sounds like fun, right? The negatives first: my higher end filmmaking friends thought I was just trying to get people to shoot for free. Many lamented that I was trying to capture something that was gone. Others didn't care because the election was over. But I believed, deep in my heart, whether Bush v. Gore was illegal or not, everything about the way American citizens understood their citizenship had changed. For goodness sake, I was the kid in third grade that asked if there could be a tie in a Presidential election, and I was told it was impossible. Now my world was shattered. But this one right we have as American citizens, the right to vote, is the only thing we, as Americans, all share. So it seemed natural to me that the most highly viewed public event since the moon landing must have given powerful consciousness to the collective memory of our country.
My original email expanded into a 12-page do-it-yourself package to help almost anyone with a video camera shoot his or her experience of the election process. The deadline was one week after Bush was inaugurated, and that's when the tapes flowed in from nearly every U.S. state. Most were made by professional filmmakers, a few by activists, and a few by artists. Our first cuts were off-kilter slices of Americana: angry, funny, and trying to display unique personal insight to a mass event. One lady, sitting on her wooden porch in a rocking chair, reminisced about her childhood disappointment because the mothers who had promised cupcakes were Nixon supporters, and they didn't show up when Kennedy won! Many other people, to whom one would normally be sympathetic, were sorely confused and misinformed.
I realized we needed experts to explain what really happened. And if there was a conflict about facts, we had to interview credible experts. First, we started with lawyers who would dissect Bush vs. Gore. Fortunately, we were able to attract Alan Dershowitz, who kindly invited us to his home; Federal Judge Richard Posner who graciously offered us wine; Professor Jamin Raskin, who has since been elected to the Maryland State Legislature; Vincent Bugliosi, whose controversial bestseller accused the Supreme Court of treason; and Marci Hamilton, a law professor who had clerked for Sandra Day O'Connor, the Justice whom many assumed had decided the election. This debate, as we edited it, didn't just destroy the opinion, but left it up to viewers to decide if anyone truly supported the decision as written. Would President Bush have suffered from the lack of Equal Protection if all of Al Gore's Florida votes were counted?
Experts into what happened on the ground needed to be without dispute. Pulitzer Prize winner Dan Keating from "The Consortium" -- led a team from respected newspapers and published findings of their hand recount after September 11. The Federal Investigation into allegations of discriminatory purging of black voters took longer. But together, those projects proved that if everyone who had tried to vote had succeeded, Gore would have won Florida.
Through the array of good and bad reporting, Americans believed the count in Florida had become irrevocably contested. I began to wonder if it would have been perfectly legal, even fair, for the Florida legislature to chose who was awarded the state's electoral votes. This obviously would have meant a Bush win, not the actual voters' choice and not my preference. But it would also have revealed the arcane rules of the Electoral College, which on one hand separates our country into states, both diluting and inflating the value of individual votes, but then takes that power away. If there is an election where there is no clear Electoral College winner, then the House of Representatives chooses the President and the Senate chooses the Vice President.
Just to amplify -- imagine one or two of the swing states in this election with popular votes too close to call with a disputable margin of error. It is those state legislatures -- not the Supreme Court -- that could decide Romney vs. Obama. Wouldn't we be better off now if we had addressed that brutal truth in 2000?
Naturally, my obsession grew. I looked at the history of Electoral College malfunctions. I think this was the major discovery of the film, and inherently, a call to action. Even though we are told the system always works, there were unresolved counting problems in almost a third of all elections. Our film features former Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana, the first and last politician to stake a considerable reputation on eliminating the Electoral College. In the 1960s, he fathered the 25th and 26th Constitutional Amendments -- allowing the president to appoint a vice president, and allowing 18-year-olds to vote. In early 2001, when I called to ask him to be in the film, the first thing he said was, "If I had succeeded in abolishing the Electoral College, we never would be in this mess." Throughout the 1970s, Sen. Bayh worked tirelessly to build on his success with Congress and state legislatures to create a popular movement to have the popular vote. His argument was simple: in every election except for president, the person with the most votes wins. If we care about people more than states, then it's impossible to see the Electoral College as anything but unfair.
In short, the Electoral College serves two positive purposes. It can protect small states from being overwhelmed by the power of large states. And in times of trouble, the Electors, who were supposed to be political appointed elders, could represent states that could not physically vote. In our times it is unpalatable that Electors can determine the state's vote after a weather catastrophe. But we might make an exception in the aftermath of a devastating terrorist attack - even though a terrorist's aims might include some delusional hope of changing the outcome. And all of this is because the main, third reason for the Electoral College is no longer valid. We no longer have a large body of voters who know nothing about the issues of the nation. We have a national media, and a practically limitless opportunity for free speech. Americans can make up their own minds, but are limited by an electoral system more than 200 years old.
Our film also covers the passage of The Help America Vote Act. HAVA created a new elections commission and demanded punch card machines be replaced. But it was hardly anything anyone on the street knew about. So, when the Kerry-Bush election was decided in Ohio, the nation faced the same old problems on the ground counting simple votes and crafty new ways election administrators were limiting access to the polls. If the election had been decided in Colorado, it would have been worse:
When you're in the swirl of completing a complicated film you think everyone in the nation has a stake in, there is no success too great. After a year of activist and university screenings, our premier at the Palm Springs Film Festival was favorably reviewed in Variety. We built partnerships with voting rights organizations like Rock the Vote, Demos and Fairvote, coupled with amazing post-screening debates. I love to talk, and so I'll never forget the pleasure of Kansas where post-screening discussions lasted two and a-half hours for three nights in a row.
One thing I tried to understand was whether or not citizens had become fatigued with the reports of what went on in Florida. There was so much pressure on Al Gore (and John Kerry) to concede. Will Romney or Obama face this now? Call it Democracy details how, the otherwise sensible outburst of patriotism after 9/11 destroyed any popular interest in national-level investigations into the fragility and security flaws of our election system. While 9/11 presented a story the media would chose not to control or end, the election was actually the biggest story the media could control, and they wanted no part of it. If terrorism had anything to do with the national media's reluctance to get into the nitty gritty of maintaining democracy at home, even as a mechanism, that is another way to throw around the idea that "the terrorists won." Why should we stand for it?
It's a gloomy, self-fulfilling prophecy. If people are what they eat, and media is food, this is why there exists no national rights movement for a system that counts every vote in every election. After 2000, if we can't imagine such a movement that seeks to abolish the Electoral College through a Constitutional amendment, then we have no future as a democracy. Yes, there is the group who wants to have the 10-state end run solution. But that pits big states against small. And it doesn't instill the kind of pride in their system Democrats in Texas and Republicans in Vermont deserve when they vote for President. What we need is one person, one vote, across the board. Unleash the masses.
Why has it taken seven years for this film to be broadcast? It was previewed at law schools, activist events and lauded upon at its premieres at prestigious film festivals. The film toured for more than a year and a half. However, with very modest production values, and a huge theme, this is exactly the kind of film that gets lost by broadcasters. In 2004, I literally had a network executive tell me that a film that questioned the integrity of the election system "would never air in the United States" while Bush was in office. When another broadcaster passed on the film, they chose a "dramatic," character-centered film, focusing on someone who posited many unproveable but exciting conspiracy theories. I got into an overheated phone argument with a funder about whether or not I would be spending the rest of my life trying to abolish the Electoral College, instead of figuring out ways to fund a program tied in with this film. It was only when Lou Dobbs began to do a series of interviews about electronic voting that other networks began to cover election irregularities on a semi-regular basis.
To the present day, no one has taken our comprehensive approach in making a film about voting rights. There is no movement, no lobby, and no inherent broad approach to national voting rights. Yes, Call it Democracy's budget was too low (there was no budget!), but it took its own issues damn seriously and pandered to no one -- and especially not to partisanship, paranoia, or time.
Matthew Kohn is the director of Call it Democracy. Call it Democracy will air on the Documentary Channel, Nov. 3rd (8pm and 11pm); and Nov. 5th (4pm). All times are EST. Kohn is currently in post-production on The Manute Bol Sudan Reconciliation Film Project, about the first NBA player from Africa.