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Rizwan A. Rahmani Headshot

Gnawing Away at American Democracy

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It wasn't too long ago when our democracy (one of the oldest in the world) was the envy of all other countries -- countries that were (and are still) being oppressed under tyrants, autocrats, and despots. But it feels as if an eon has elapsed since I felt smug about having adopted this democracy as my home. I have now lived here longer than any other location, including my country of birth.

Having been brought up in the world's largest democracy, India, I had witnessed some of Indira Gandhi's abuses of power during the seventies, when she used political expediency to declare "Emergency Law" -- using devious tactics to augment her constitutionally permissible powers and curtail civil liberties, keeping India's democratic process under siege. These acts didn't wash well with the voters who took the opportunity to vote against her party (Congress Party) once she loosened her grip, and unseated her as Prime Minister. The democratic system, that was in place, proved efficacious. Not so in all democracies.

Having lived here a while, I had heard of election-related misdeeds in Louisiana and some other mid-western states. But up until the election debacle of Florida, I had never lived in a country with election aberrations of such supreme magnitude. Any fabled indiscretions from prior elections would pale in comparison, with help from the highest office in the state: a governor brother and a secretary of state who co-chairs your election committee.

After the unsavory drama unfolded -- i.e., a blockade of poorer areas by highway patrol, voter purging by a big campaign donor's company, the sudden appearance of unreported absentee ballots, confusing ballots, the staged melee over hanging chads, and the recount that unfolded in Florida -- the image of the United States' democratic process, which had been relatively unsullied until then, became a subject of ridicule for the rest of the world, and irrevocably tarnished its pristine reputation. But Florida would be just a trailer for the coming attractions.

The black hole that sucked casted votes without a trace emission was the Diebold voting machine of the 2004 elections, and was quite instrumental in Ohio's election outcome. But then the Supreme Court served our nation the Faustian decision of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010, and it was apparent that our equitable democratic process was in for a thrashing. Obscene sums of money were spent during the last mid-term election by Super PACs. And if the current election is any indicator, the Super PACs, with their billionaire and corporate donors, will eventually squash any semblance of democracy remaining under piles of cash. Even before that, the campaign of "Swift Boat Veterans" by the 527 organization and its cloaked benefactors was a major setback for our democratic process. This political event alone helped incorporate "Swiftboating" into our political lexicon, and strangulated John Kerry's presidential bid with a string of dishonest ads.

The current effort -- alarmingly succeeding to a large degree -- to impose voter ID laws in several states (laws that are nothing but poll taxes disguised as election fraud prevention to suppress minority, elderly, and poorer voters) are happening at a disconcertingly swift rate. The plan in Ohio to change voting hours or to impose voter ID laws in several states, are examples of such efforts. There are well-recorded statements and egregiously transparent intents to promote voting only in Republican precincts. Some judges have arrived at the same conclusion, and are against such laws constitutionally.

All of these laws are being put in place exclusively in Republican governor-run states to prevent voter fraud, which is supposedly as rampant as lobbyists in D.C., according to conservative spinmeisters! But statistically speaking, voter fraud instances in America are as common as an honest politician in D.C.

Short of some federally mandated uniformity in our electoral process, hours, and accountability -- and why this would not be the case is beyond me, as it is a federal election -- I see no end in sight for such superfluous and unjust laws being enacted by state governments to punish civil students and those who are elderly or less fortunate economically, and tend to vote democratic.

The only defense against such inequities in our electoral process is a massive turnout of voters. Yet despite a seasoned democracy such as ours, we are lucky if 50 or so percent of voters show up at the polls. The worst offenders are younger voters who are busy existing and appearing cool while shirking their civic duties as if it was the hippest trend of our times -- yet you never hear an end to their litany of complaints as to how everything is so f'ed up and hapless that there is no point in voting.

Elizabeth Warren correctly points out that the conservatives do like government -- the kind of government that makes laws that helps them pilfer monies from our coffers under the pretext of tax codes or stops women from choosing reproductively. They are more than happy using government to win elections at the expense of democracy and freedom -- this is no hyperbole: make no mistake as to what the impact of the aforementioned 'anti-fraud' legislation will be in those states.

We citizens must do everything to stem this onslaught on our democracy. To paraphrase a famous couplet from my first language: The novice frets ruination of the footwear and not the hat, without realizing the magnitude of the tide about to crash over his head.