Election Choices: What to Do Instead
By Jim Kavanagh at Nov 08, 2012
[Escape from New York delayed completion of this post this until after election night. All the better. Now that the great danger has been dodged, let’s look to the future. Advisories: 1) I’m talking here aboutpresidentialelections. 2) You really have to see the videos.]
Having made the case against voting for Obama in a previous post, it’s only fair for me to suggest the alternative.
I value the right to vote as fundamental. I have seen how people who don’t have that right fight for it, and how people who get it for the first time eagerly embrace it, and go to extraordinary lengths to use it. Although I consider electoral politics only one aspect of a thoroughgoing democratic polity and of individual democratic engagement, it would be hard to conceive of a democratic schema, no matter how revolutionary, in which a transparent, trusted voting process was not important. It may be one among many, but a vote is an important political tool/weapon, and a terrible thing to waste.
(I lie. I relapsed once, when a woman friend of mine, clearly desperate for Democratic votes, promised to buy me dinner if I voted for Bill Clinton. Maybe I sold my vote. Or maybe I respondes to the kind of plea Michael Moore made yesterday,1 abandoning all pretense that there might be some actual argument for voting for Obama, and urging his reluctant correspondent to cast that vote simply as a personal favor to Michael himself. At any rate, disappointed as usual from my slip into electoral promiscuity, I realized that, regarding one’s vote, whether it’s the attractions of my dinner date or the boyish charm of Michael Moore, you shouldn’t give it up so easily. Respect Yourself, and all that. So, as often happens in such cases, I’m not counting it.)
I have, though, always made sure to register and vote for some third-party candidate whose politics I could actually support. No matter how few votes that candidate got, I thought it was important that support for alternative – substantively left and at least quasi-socialist – political possibilities be registered and recognized, in a visible and measurable way. This year, given the present contours of the American electoral system, I have reluctantly concluded that, even on these limited terms, voting for an attractive third party is no longer a politically relevant gesture. For countless presidential election cycles, in a kind of American political badminton death-match,2 those who vote third party and those who vote for the Democrat have been volleying the Einstein quip that “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.” Well, though not exactly in the same way, both now have a point, and it’s time to play an entirely different game.
It’s necessary, first of all, to recognize how thoroughly corrupted, untrustworthy, antithetical to democracy, and generally hopeless for any progressive purposes, our electoral system is.
Liberals and progressives certainly seem to recognize, and complain about, the corrupting effects of money on our elections, but the extent and depth of that corruption have more radical implications than they are wont to admit. Citizens United, which progressives rightly rail about, has brought this into sharp relief, although the problems are prior to, and extend beyond, that decision, and will not be solved by a constitutional amendment directed at annulling it.
Another important decision that liberals never mention was the one Barack Obama made – in direct contradiction to his promise and in contrast to John McCain’s keeping of his – to forgo public financing in 2008. This decision by the ostensibly progressive Democrat sanctioned making the presidential race an unlimited private fundraising contest ad infinitum.
And a different decision would have made a difference, creating a bipartisan precedent that would have put severe pressure on subsequent candidates. Obama’s decision did the opposite. It effectively eliminated any possibility that a presidential candidate would ever forgo private financing, and took the whole discussion of such an option off the table, rendering it one of those naive leftist plaints to which Serious People need not pay attention. It was a substantive betrayal with significant consequences. You can bet liberals would never cease to criticize McCain, if the decisions had been reversed.
At any rate, as a result of these decisions, and of other laws regarding PACs, Super PACs, 501Cs, and of the inequalities in wealth in our society in general, we now have this year’s obscene $2 billon+ auction.3 And an auction it is. There is no straight-faced argument that the billion dollars spent on each candidate does not buy access, influence, and preferential consideration on policies, regulations, and legislation. There is no straight-faced denial that the logic of explicit and implicit commitments made in the private-party, wealthy-donor, fund-raising campaign is entirely different from that of the promises and suggestions made in the public event campaign. There is no straight-faced denial, based on the historical record, about which logic triumphs in the governance.
We now have, it is increasingly obvious, elections by and for the plutocracy, which create governments by and for the plutocracy that make the minimum concessions necessary to prevent complete, militant, and progressively politically-focused public disaffection. The net result is a government of millionaires hired by billionaires. Yes, no matter where s/he starts, if properly vetted by the plutocracy to allow his or her accession to national candidacy, millionaire is where the candidate ends up. The moment s/he is nominated, s/he will probably get a sweetheart book deal, and be a millionaire by the time of the election. Meanwhile, as a result of all that private-party, wealthy-donor hob-nobbing during two campaigns and meeting most of the explicit and implicit expectations gleaned therein, the president knows that, upon retirement, there will be money, lots and lots of money – from speaking fees, more book deals, directorships, etc.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a retired president having a comfortable life, which does require some multiple of the median income in our unequal capitalist society. He doesn’t have to drive a Chevy. Progressivism, even radicalism, is not asceticism. The matter for concern is the accelerating tendency, tied to the increasingly plutocratic development of the electoral system, for a political career to become a path for dramatically changing one’s social, and usually therefore one’s political, affinities.
This is true even for liberal Democrats, and it’s true especially on the presidential level. It’s nice for Bill Clinton that he was able to go from being the son of a struggling single mom to a guy who’s worth upwards of $80 million.4 Maybe he “earned” that from...gee, what talent would that be? Or maybe it has more to do with the way he achieved the DLC5 plan of stitching the Democratic Party (and himself) into the agenda of corporate America and finance capital. You decide. And maybe the reason the net worth of Members of Congress increased 25% between 2008 and 2010 and “the economic disparity between Republicans and Democrats has virtually disappeared” has nothing to do with that trajectory of the party.6 And maybe I’m wrong, I’m just guessing here, but I’ll bet that, for the same reasons, Obama, like Clinton, will end up a very wealthy man.
So the current presidential election system is not only run by plutocrats, it’s become a system for making plutocrats. This did not used to be the case. It’s sure not your granddaddy Harry’s Oldsmobile; it’s Big Daddy Bill’s Maserati. Democrat and Republican, from the party to the personal level, through and through, it’s a plutocratic system, controlled by and for big money.
The grip of money is not just represented by the plutocratic campaign finance system. That $2 billon gets spent somewhere, and a huge chunk of it goes to television advertising. That means media, from the mega entertainment corporations to the hundreds of local-market television and radio stations to the new internet platforms, have a big financial stake in keeping the electoral contest the way it is. They prefer a horse race in which unlimited amounts of money can be spent on short, scripted spots in a hundred media markets to a campaign that’s built from thousands of freewheeling face-to-face local meetings and discussions. They want a campaign that focuses on superficialities – personalities and platitudes – rather than on substantive ideas and policies, one that sticks to the two-party script and avoids raising issues that neither party wants discussed. They certainly do not want any limits on the money the candidates can spend, or the time they can campaign. The Campaign is an entrenched, money-making reality show that the media is very comfortable with, that lasts for 18 months, and that they do not want to cancel.
Meanwhile, in the reality community, one might notice that certain unsustainable contradictions are becoming, well, unsustainable: the entire world capitalist economy – including European social democracy – is imploding and American hegemony is under challenge. These are fundamental problems, and neither Obama nor any other possible Republican or Democratic president has any iota of a smidgen of an idea of undertaking the kind of radical changes that would respond to these crises – which are also opportunities – in a way that would move our national trajectory in a progressive direction. On the contrary, with capitalism reverting to its immiserating, and imperialism to its militarist, core, any major-party president will embrace all that implies. Democrat or Republican, we are going to get more of the same, just nastier: cuts in entitlements, the imposition of a bi-partisan austerity agenda, long-long-term unemployment, expansion of the permanent imperialist “war on terror” across Africa and the Middle East, ubiquitous drone assassinations, unconditional support of Israel (including, quite possibly, an epically criminal attack on Iran). The difference: Maybe the Republican will be “louder” and the Democrat “smarter.” Fiddling around the edges. Nobody is even promising anything different. No more “We’ll change the way Washington works”; now it’s “You can’t change Washington from the inside.”7
All except the most self-deluded progressives know this. Haven’t we already seen that all that will come of holding Obama’s “feet to the fire” is warm toes for Barack. Not only Romney and Obama, but both the Republican and the Democratic parties as institutions are fully part of the problem, and from neither will a candidate or a solution that is not pre-approved by the plutocracy ever emerge. As I’ve said before,8 most progressive citizens know that we have to get off this electoral merry-go-round that is getting us nowhere. So, if you’ve gone out and voted for Obama, when you see the policies that you end up getting (no “if,” you already got them), please consider getting off once and for all before the music starts again. Unless you’re content to be ratcheted further right by your fear of the next Big Bad Republican Wolf. (Dole, Bush, McCain, or Romney, it’s always the most important election ever, isn’t it?) Or, unless you actually think that, in 2016, just in time to save us from the horrible results of 2000-2015, the Dems are going to nominate a more seemingly – let alone, this time I swear, a more really real – “progressive” candidate than 2008 Obama. If so, good luck with that.
Therefore, in American presidential elections to come, aside from withholding our votes from the Democrats, we should all be prepared to vote for a third party, right?
I’m afraid I’m not satisfied with that either.
Progressive pay even less attention, and Democrats positively avoid (John Kerry ran away from these in 2004) other serious questions about fraudulent vote-counting procedures and unreliable electronic voting machines. This, despite the fact that there is significant evidence that the Democrats have had two presidential elections stolen from as a result of these problems.11
The issues surrounding electronic voting machines are particularly important. If you’re going to get upset about one guy throwing away 8, or 80, registration forms, realize that that kind of retail fraud pales in comparison to the wholesale changing of thousands of votes that can be invisibly effected by a deliberately hacked, or even just “accidentally” defective, electronic voting systems.
Questions regarding these machines are surrounded by a lot of obfuscation, but it’s really quite simple: They are inherently opaque to the user and the election official, and it has been proven time and again that they generate false results and are relatively easy to hack. One recent example: “Tests on an electronic voting machine that recorded shockingly high numbers of extra votes in the 2010 election show that overheating may have caused upwards of 30 percent of the votes in a South Bronx voting precinct to go uncounted.”12 Oops. 30% of votes lost! What the hell, it’s only the South Bronx.
Do not comfort yourself thinking this is a one-off. There are scores of such incidents. Look through the links below.
According to Black Box Voting, about 90% of votes in all fifty states are now counted electronically. That includes the votes that are cast electronically on DRE (Direct Recording Electronic) touch-screen machines, without a paper audit, and those that are cast using optically-scanned paper ballots. It’s important to recognize that it’s the counting that counts. To revise Stalin accordingly: It's not the people who vote that count, it's the
Look into the links below for yourself, and, please, take a look at the following 8½-minute excerpt from Hacking Democracy,13 the HBO documentary based on Bev Harris’s work at Black Box Voting. In it, you will see an election official from Tallahassee (Leon County), Florida, who had been appointed to oversee the statewide 2000 recount before the Supreme Court stopped it. He was curious about the machines in use, since he had noticed that Volusia County machines had counted backwards to -16,022 votes. As he says: “In the 17 years that I’ve been an election administrator, my experience is that that kind of subtraction cannot occur accidentally. Someone consciously tried to affect that computer system, and consciously tried to perpetuate a fraud to steal votes.” In order to test the Diebold Accuvote machines in question – which a Diebold executive and a senior software engineer had just testified in open hearing could not be hacked through the memory card – he undertook this test:
It’s worth noting that the optical scan machine you see in this video is the better system from the point of view of election integrity. With these machines, the original hand-marked paper ballots on which the vote is cast remain available for an audit. Of course, the audit will only be done if the count raises some suspicion, which, as you’ve seen, it would not. And it can only be done if election officials don’t discard the paper ballots, as they sometimes do, illegally. But it is at least possible. With the DRE machines, most of which give no paper receipt, the vote is cast and counted electronically, and there is no voter-verified paper trail against which the electronic results could ever be audited.
The spread of these machines also directly affects what we think we might accomplish with third-party voting. With systems like this in place, third-party votes are not just brave and clear, if futile, markers of political difference. These votes can now become a kind of electronic electoral slush fund, available to be moved around unnoticed. In a close race in a swing state, the public, the press, and the Democrats themselves might notice if a few thousand Democratic votes went missing. But who’s going to notice that a thousand or so votes from the Libertarian and Green candidates combined, got shifted to the Republican candidate. The third party share of the vote will go from 3% to 2.5% of the vote, and the Republican will eke out a hard-fought victory.
This has all only been possible since the 2000 election, and the prima facie evidence about this points to Democrats being the overwhelming victims. (Remember, it’s virtually impossible to get dispositive evidence, although the testimony of this computer programmer [also discussed in other sources below] regarding Florida 2000 comes damn close.) But anyone who thinks that the Democrats would never do such a thing, or that Republicans are just whining when they notice and complain about such issues, has never met Johnson in Texas or Kennedy in Illinois. When there are 24 instance of electronic voting machines flipping Romney votes into Obama votes in North Carolina, Democrats should not, as this guy does,14 pooh-pooh the problem, based on the election director’s assurance that it’s “nearly technically impossible“ to hack the machines, along with his patriotic insistence that the legitimate questions raised are “irresponsible and unfortunate because they undermine the public’s confidence in the electoral process.” This attitude, which attempts to shut down important and legitimate questions lest they “undermine the public’s confidence” is exactly what caused Gore to surrender in 2000 and Kerry in 2008, and will ensure that we never find out what the hell is going on. The “public’s confidence in the electoral process” and in the “nearly” impossible-to-hack electronic voting machines, should be shaken. Unless you also want to pooh-pooh this,15 from Tuesday’s election in Pennsylvania,:
Of course, this kind of visible problem is not as insidious as the ones
that remain invisible.
More than a little disheartening, I know. But it’s always tough to watch the sausage being made, and this is the mystery meat that’s behind the menu of “democratic” platitudes. This is the process we’re showing our confidence in when we vote in America today.
It’s also important to understand what it means when the Tallahassee voting official says, “Vendors are driving this process of voting technology in the US.” It is for-profit vendors who provide their proprietary technology, their testing procedures, and their assurances, which election officials rely on. The Accuvote machine cannot be hacked! We also know what kind of corrupting possibilities such a system involves. Low-paid, harried, election officials and workers in underfunded offices are approached by deep-pocketed companies who want contracts, and who promise to make their work easier. (“You don’t even have to count the votes. We’ll do it for you, instantly and automatically!”) And we know how this contract process works, from the Pentagon on down: the election-machine lobbyists can imply, to low-paid county and state officials who make decisions on voting-machine contracts, that well-paid jobs might be available should they want to change careers at some point in the near future. As can be expected, this creates a web of financial and inertial interests that encourages local election workers to fend off any questions and investigations, and insist that you move right along, there’s no problem here, no matter what you don’t see that you’re entitled to see by common-sense political right, and sometimes even by law.
This is another example of the neo-liberal, privatizing (i.e., capitalist) logic now being instituted everywhere from schools to armed forces: abandoning the principle of adequately funding and staffing public agencies to perform vital public services, in favor of turning public money over to private contractors and their profit margins. Now, it’s voting, a core task of democracy, which should be undertaken by public servants in complete transparency, that is being put in the hands of for-profit firms with proprietary technology. It’s utterly corrupt and utterly untrustworthy. And it’s accelerated by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed after the 2000 election – ostensibly to rationalize the voting process, but actually providing incentives for this contract boondoggling.
I am not a technophobe. I build my own computers, and love my smartphone. My son is a software engineer. I also know what kind of complicated code is hidden behind “user friendly” computer interfaces. What’s going on there is not accessible to voting citizens and election workers, and should in no circumstance be protected from public scrutiny as “proprietary.” That way lies scam.
I also know that, with voting, simpler is usually better. In 2006, I sat I a classroom (that had been used as a polling station) in Ramallah, along with other international observers and representative of every party on the ballot, and watched the vote count for the Palestinian elections. The poll supervisor, a teacher at the school, opened the ballot boxes (which had been observed all day), showed every person in the room each hand-marked ballot, and put them in separate piles, with someone marking the vote count for each party on the blackboard as he went along. If there was an incorrectly or ambiguously marked ballot, everyone saw it, and all the party representatives gave their opinion about how to count it. On some of these, the intent of the voter was obvious; and they were counted accordingly; on others, it was impossible to tell, and they were invalidated. Everyone could see every ballot quite clearly. There was no disagreement. There were over a hundred ballots. It took an hour and a half or so. They weren’t doing it for Tom Brokaw. At the end of this process, the result was posted on the door of the classroom for everybody to see. There was no doubt about the outcome. The poignant moment for me was when, in the midst of this process, the woman sitting next to me, representing the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said to me something like: “You must think we are so backward here, counting votes one by one like this. I’m sure you have a more advanced system in America.” From the hole I was crawling into in my mind, I replied: “I’ve sat through two presidential elections in the United States in the past six years, and I still don’t know who actually won them. I know, without a doubt, who won here. Please understand, it is I who is learning from you.”
The two lessons learned (besides the one about how our government has no lessons about democracy to export – and certainly not by force of arms – to anybody, and, oh yeah, the one about “the only democracy in the Middle East”) were: 1) You can have a trustworthy democratic election if you want to, and 2) The simpler the better; the hand-marked paper ballot, hand-counted in the polling station, is the gold standard for a democratic election. Until we have a technology that meets that standard of transparence, leave the video screen for Words with Friends. If the votes are not counted on the spot, in front of observers from the candidates, with the result immediately publicly displayed, it’s a good bet there’s a scam in progress.
To return to the USA, we won’t even go into the fact that elections are administered by a plethora of different state and county bodies, with no consistent criteria, or into the irrationality of the Electoral College, which turns a national election into a few state contests, where some votes count a lot more than others.17 These are persistent constitutional issues that skew the American electoral system even further.
All of this leads me to the conclusion that the only effective tactic for presidential elections within our present electoral system is not voting. I don’t, of course, mean privately sitting home and sulking. (I’m not quite going George Carlin. Although he does have a wonderful point about who gets to complain, I prefer his take on the American Dream.) I mean a public, organized boycott that demands the electoral system be reformed in such a way to earn the public’s confidence, in a way that gives a consistently reasonable certainty that your vote will count for whom it is cast.
Voting in the present system is like sitting down at a poker table where you have no reasonable certainty that there are 52 cards in the deck, or that they are not marked, and where you do know that the dealer is bought, and is going to count the chips and allocate them to the players behind a screen. Sitting at that table is not a sign of how much you treasure your money/vote, but of how easy it is to get you to waste it. The only thing you achieve, and the only reason the dealer wants you to be. at the table is to give credibility to a process that has none. And the only reason you would sit at the table, knowing all this, is because you want to believe in its credibility, too. As in all confidence games, it’s the mark’s own belief that gets him taken.
And if the dealer is spending as much money and energy as the plutocracy does to get you to sit at that table, it must be because he really does need that sanction of credibility from you. That is what he is paying for. That, therefore, is the one power you have in the electoral system. And the most effective – indeed, I would contend, the only principled and effective way to use it in the current system is to withhold it.
That’s why I think Michael Moore is exactly wrong when he says to his non-voting friend: “Your presence at the polls is what they fear most.” No, it is our absence, en masse, from the polls that the ruling plutocracy fears most. They fear their inability to plausibly claim that they rule with the consent of the governed, that the system they build and sustain is recognized as substantially democratic by its own citizenry. Voting for Obama or any other Democrat is not going to give the ruling class the slightest headache, nor, under present restrictive conditions, is voting for a third party. Having the percentage of registered voters drop to 30% or 25%, rather than the 50% or so it is now, and publicly proclaiming why, would give them a migraine – and might also encourage changes in electoral conditions that would make voting for a third-party feasible. It is the only thing I can imagine doing – with one’s vote, within electoral politics (mass, militant street action would be even better) – that would make a significant difference.
I’m not now talking, as I was before, about whether, as a progressive, you should withhold your vote until you find an acceptable candidate. I’m talking about a prior, prerequisite decision: whether, as a citizen, to withhold a vote because the general corruption and lack of integrity of the electoral process makes a mockery of casting it.
A boycott for election integrity also has the advantage of being easily understood. If one starts with an honest assessment of how screwed-up the present system is, and promotes a boycott as an act, not of abandoning, but of using the right to vote in another, more powerful way, it could easily appeal beyond right and left, even as it would, I think, tackle questions – such as the elimination of electoral college (by amendment or by a deal among states), strict public financing, opening the process to third parties, fixing a campaign season with media, poll, and announcement limits, establishing absolutely transparent voting and counting procedures under the auspices of public institutions, etc. – that would implicitly move the discourse leftward in a widely attractive way. Of course, it would have to be public, with supporters signing on publicly, and explaining the rationale, personally and in public campaigns. There is such a movement already,18 and I suggest we help it to grow and move in a generally progressive direction during the next four years.
The citizen’s vote is the political equivalent of the worker’s labor-power, and it should be given only in exchange for a fair deal. Not necessarily maximal, just fair. You can work with dignity and integrity under capitalism, before you demand to take over the means of production, as long as you get a fair wage. But not for a penny a day, and not if you know you might get cheated out of even that. Such insulting nonsense calls for an exercise of the one economic power you have as a worker: a strike. Similarly, a citizen can vote with integrity in any election, even when no candidate is the one s/he really prefers, as long as s/he has a reasonable certainty that his/her vote will be counted for whom it was cast, But without that minimal assurance – well, to wax poetic: There is some shit one should not eat.
Really, WTF are we waiting for? Let’s got off the merry-go-round now. Let’s use, rather than waste, our right – our power – to vote, in the only way that will make a difference to the plutocracy that now has our electoral quasi-democracy 1000% locked up. Deprive them of the one thing they are spending $2 billion to get from you. Boycott the vote!
Wisdom comes from all around the world, even 80s movies: Sometimes the only winning move is not to play.
Links and notes:
2De Düva,http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8X2QmLWWxq4. [If you haven’t seen it, you must.]
3Open Secrets, http://www.opensecrets.org/pres12/index.php?ql3#out.
4Matt Stoller, “Bill Clinton’s $80 Million Payday, or Why Politicians Don’t Care That Much About Reelection,” http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2012/05/its-not-about-reelection-bill-clintons-80-million-payday.html
5The Democratic Leadership Council represented the “corporatist” wing of the Democratic Party, formed explicitly to counter the economic populism represented by such Democrats as George McGovern. Bill Clinton was its greatest alumnus. It folded in 2011, since it the Democratic Party had essentially become it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democratic_Leadership_Council
6“Net Worth of Lawmakers Up 25 Percent in Two Years, Analysis Demonstrates,“ http://www.rollcall.com/issues/57_51/And-Congress-Rich-Get-Richer-209907-1.html
8”Election Choices: Obama or Not,” http://www.thepolemicist.net/2012/10/election-choices-obama-or-not.html
9 “Greg Palast on How the GOP Is Planning to Steal the 2012 Election,” http://truth-out.org/news/item/11500-greg-palast-on-how-the-gop-is-planning-to-steal-the-2012-election
10“Virginia GOP Caught Throwing Away Voter Registrations,” http://fromthetrenchesworldreport.com/virginia-gop-caught-throwing-away-voter-registrations/23973/
11Just a few sources:
12“Machine Casts Phantom Votes in the Bronx, Invalidating Real Ones: Report.” http://www.wnyc.org/blogs/empire/2012/may/09/reports-find-machine-errors-led-uncounted-votes-2010/
14Steven Rosenfeld, “Republicans Whip Up Fears of Rigged Voting Machines to Delegitimize a Likely Obama Win,” http://www.alternet.org/election-2012/republicans-whip-fears-rigged-voting-machines-delegitimize-likely-obama-win
15“Video: Possible voting malfunctions in Pennsylvania,“ http://www.salon.com/2012/11/06/having_trouble_casting_your_vote_snap_a_photo_and_send_it_in/
16Matt Stoller, “The Fake Election: 10 Arguments The Republicans Aren’t Making,”
17Alex Parene, “Let’s kill the electoral college so we never have to pay attention to Ohio and Florida again,” http://www.salon.com/2012/11/05/lets_kill_the_electoral_college_so_we_never_have_to_pay_attention_to_ohio_and_florida_again/