Right to Vote

We all remember the purple fingers, the ink-stained fingers of the Iraqis as they cast their first ballots in 2005.

Those fingers were a symbol of change, war supporters crowed, proof that invading Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein from power was setting Iraq—and the rest of the region – on the road to democracy.

“There is an unstoppable momentum for change in the Middle East now,” Gerard Baker, United States editor and an assistant editor of The Times of London, wrote in a February 2005 op-ed. “In just two years tyrannies have been felled in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Palestine, the inexorable clock of human mortality has ended another. But the crucial element was always going to be the voluntary and courageous act of self-assertion that democratic and free elections represent—a message heard around the region and the world.”

The basic narrative was simple: Voting equals democracy.

But what happens if we are unsure if our votes will count or even be counted? At best, the legitimacy of the new officeholder is under cut, leading to the kind of disaffection and resentment that followed the 2000 election. At worst, we get violent chaos, like that gripping Kenya.

And yet, President George W. Bush opposes basic mechanisms designed to safeguard the process and ensure that every vote counts. The president scuttled legislation that would have addressed some of these concerns, sending a statement to Congress opposing the bill and chasing some Republican support. The bill, because of a procedural decision, needed a two-thirds majority to pass, but managed to attract just 239 votes—about 40 votes shy of what was needed. Just 16 Republicans ignored the president (two Democrats bucked their party).

The bill, sponsored by US Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), would have required all voting systems to provide a paper trail, that they be audited to guarantee accuracy and that money be provided to the pay for the measures.

Common Cause, a good-government group, called American voting systems a “shambles” and said the president’s letter and subsequent party-line vote “delivered a blow to secure elections and the ability to conduct meaningful recounts.”

“The United States is spending billions of dollars to build democracy overseas, yet our own Congress turned its back on the workings of our own democracy,” Common Cause President Bob Edgar said in a press release following the early April vote.

Holt, in an interview in late April, was just as blunt. Republicans, he said, view voter verification as “payback” for the 2000 Florida fiasco, an election that many still believe was stolen by the GOP after the voting systems used in the state broke down. The US Supreme Court shut down a recount, which handed Florida’s electoral votes and the presidency to Bush.

Holt has been advocating for voter verification since 2004. He says a paper trail is the only way to protect a voting system that has been rife with errors and is open to sabotage.

“With purely electronic voting, there is no way to verify if the vote cast is what was meant,” he said. “The software doesn’t always work right and even though the machines are tested the bug could be such or the hacking could such that it could pass the tests until election time.”

Critics claim the paper trail isn’t necessary, but Holt says that a paper ballot—produced either after a vote is tallied or before so it can be read by an electronic reader—is the only way to ensure that the convenience of electronic voting does not result in sloppiness or fraud.

“There always will be questions and disputes,” he said. “But you want some way to resolve them.”

To critics who say that management of the voting process should be left to the states, he has a simple answer.

“As long as voters have questions about the legitimacy of elections and whether they are fair, it is appropriate for the federal government to step in,” he said.

And, as long as voters lack confidence that their vote will be counted or counted accurately, voters will have doubts about their connection to government.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of two central New Jersey weekly newspapers. E-mail His blog, Channel Surfing, is at

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2008

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