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Robert Koehler

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The Hollow Democracy

Posted: 01/05/2012 1:24 pm

Maybe they're trying to remind us that democracy isn't merely a matter of casting that little vote once every Leap Year -- but, far, far more significantly, it's about getting that right to vote in the first place, keeping that right, and having it matter.

Every one of these rights is in jeopardy as 2012 opens and another presidential election season gets serious. But this is nothing new.

After all, democracy is nothing if not a perpetual nuisance to the powerful. It asserts that public policy is everyone's business, and that the concerns of even the most financially and socially marginal citizens are equal to those of the most elite. Indeed, no one is marginal in a democracy -- a concept we embrace as a nation but don't believe. And thus citizens are marginalized all the time.

"Even in 2008, which saw the highest voter turnout in four decades," Ari Berman wrote last September in Rolling Stone, "fewer than two-thirds of eligible voters went to the polls. And according to a study by MIT, 9 million voters were denied an opportunity to cast ballots that year because of problems with their voter registration . . . long lines at the polls . . . uncertainty about the location of their polling place . . . or lack of proper ID."

Berman pinpoints two serious problems in this passage. The lesser of the two, though still immensely troubling, is the cheat factor: the placing of impediments in the way of vulnerable voters or the outright disenfranchisement of certain constituencies, by legal, quasi-legal or outright illegal means. The cheat factor can also refer to the actual manipulation of election results, something eerily easy to do on electronic voting machines -- with evidence of widespread irregularities permanently tarnishing George Bush's re-election in 2004, for instance.

This year, the democracy impeders are out in full force. The NAACP has issued a report called "Defending Democracy: Confronting Modern Barriers to Voting Rights in America," which, as reported by Harvey Wasserman and Bob Fitrakis, "takes on the new Jim Crow tactics passed in fourteen states that are designed to keep minorities from voting in 2012." The organization has petitioned the U.N. to investigate.

The most notorious of these tactics has been the proliferation of laws, usually passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures, requiring would-be voters to present photo IDs at the polling place, allegedly to control "voter fraud" -- a made-up problem invented by GOP operatives like Karl Rove to justify laws aimed at cutting voter turnout among typically Democratic constituencies. These constituencies -- African-Americans, Latinos, the poor, the elderly -- are far less likely than middle-class whites to have an ID such as a driver's license. To obtain a state ID at the Department of Motor Vehicles requires a long wait and, possibly, the prior purchase of a birth certificate, which has been likened to a modern-day poll tax.

Other legislative impediments include new bureaucratic hurdles complicating voter registration drives, which, Berman reported, caused the League of Women Voters to shut down its registration efforts in Florida and may lead Rock the Vote, which signed up 2.5 million new voters in 2008, to do the same; and the disenfranchising of ex-felons, a disproportionate number of whom, thanks to an array of historical forces, are African-American or Latino. (Many people happening to bear the same name as ex-felons also got purged from election rolls in a number of states in recent elections.)

Beyond the cheat factor -- the disenfranchisement of certain voters or the manipulation of results -- American democracy is being hollowed out by a process, to my mind, even more insidious: the slow, steady usurpation of power by unelected special interests and the privatization of the commons. This process continues no matter who gets elected, because elected power is subordinate to it.

I still have dazzling memories of lines snaking around the block at Chicago polling places throughout Election Day 2008, as the Obama campaign mobilized hope and possibility in almost unprecedented numbers. But as Berman pointed out, even though this was the best turnout the country had in four decades, it represented less than two-thirds of eligible voters. Along with the 9 million people who tried to vote and for various reasons couldn't in 2008, more than 40 million people marginalized themselves by not even trying.

This isn't a problem of "laziness." It's more like pragmatic despair. The media do their best to trivialize the election process and turn it into a horse race. And the military-industrial economy, through organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, to which some 2,000 state legislators and hundreds of corporations (e.g., Koch Industries, Wal-Mart, Pfizer, AT&T) belong, quietly shapes legislation and wields political power on behalf of moneyed interests.

The good news is that, as we reclaim, anew, our right to vote, we counter organized, secret, unelected corporate power and regain our own. Real democracy is represented by citizen activism and, most spectacularly in 2011, the Occupy movement, which demonstrated that "voting" is something we do by our actions every single day.

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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

© 2012 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

 
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