21 September 2014

"After the first challenge, this one big guy stood over me and pointed his finger," Anne Schultz e-mailed me. "Shaking a bit with anger, he said that he could throw me out in a minute for disrupting the election. The woman was on her way out of the polling place, and I asked her to stay until this was resolved, which she was glad to do. I reminded him that I wasn't disrupting the election, I was simply doing what was within my rights, but after that the cozy relationship I thought I'd established with the judges, with the help of bringing donuts, went rather to hell."



This is democracy raw, warts exposed. It's not the kind you see on TV - all sanitized numbers and gleeful winners - but the real deal, one vote at a time, a power struggle in every precinct, as fair as it has to be (and no fairer).



Our vaunted, flawed system - loose from its moorings, adrift in cyberspace, sealed off from real scrutiny for so long by media smugness - had a lot more eyes on it than usual last week. This is the untold story of Election '06. "The real winner in the Nov. 7 election is the grassroots voter protection movement," wrote Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman at FreePress.org. "That the well-oiled, well-funded Rove/Bush theft machine lost control of (Congress) says just one thing: Somebody was watching."



This doesn't mean the election was fair or even reasonably accurate. Electronic and other horror stories abound. The touchscreen machines in Sarasota County, Fla., for instance, seemingly lost more than 18,000 votes in a congressional race in which 373 votes separate the Republican and Democratic candidates.



But in the midst of the chaos, dirty tricks and possible fraud, a principle emerged from this election that will be our salvation: The fairness of the election is more important than the results.



Say again?



Sure, glad to, especially for anyone out there who produces TV news shows and is agonizing over how to cover Election Day: The fairness of the election is more important than the results. That means the locus of power must reside with the principle of democratic choice, not with the politicians who temporarily benefit from that choice, or who game the system with the most ruthless effectiveness. (And we all know they'll try.)



In terms of election coverage, I'd say far more oversight of, and reverence for, the voting process is in order, including more bedazzled curiosity about what voters are really thinking and feeling, not just who "won." Such analysis is overwhelmed by the winner-take-all pseudo-drama that invades our living rooms on election night.



A society can only embrace the concept that fairness matters more than results when it has attained a certain level of maturity. Many of the institutions we have in place remain, I think, in preadolescence.



It has fallen to private citizens, organizing nationally, locally, and sometimes simply acting on their own, to force us - and our institutions - to grow up. Record numbers of them, including my friend Anne Schultz, responded for the first time to the imperative to get involved as an election monitor. She was a Democratic poll watcher in Illinois' Sixth Congressional District (Roskam vs. Duckworth).



Her dispatch to me afterward was full of the nitty-gritty details of precinct-level confusion: "There were two African-American women and one Latino man who just coincidentally weren't on the rolls, though all three of them had voted before in that district," she wrote. Her hot-line calls and insistence that they get a ballot led to the stand-off with the election judge. In the end, all three got provisional ballots, which "almost certainly won't be counted," she concluded sadly.



Another friend, Janet Vernell, was an election inspector in North Miami, Fla. Her workday lasted from 5:45 a.m. to 8: 30 p.m. Among the crises she encountered: About 50 Haitian would-be voters, during the course of the day, showed up at her precinct when the place where they'd been voting for years, a nearby church, turned out to be closed. Janet's precinct, to which someone at the church had directed them, wasn't the right one either. "All the Haitian women were saying, 'I hope this isn't a repeat of 2000,'" Janet told me. Ultimately, the vanishing precinct was located and they were directed there.



Janet also went to bat for a young first-time voter who, although he had his driver's license and voter registration card, wasn't on the voting roster. "They were giving him the 'well, we'll have to straighten this out, so next time . . .' routine. The kid was crushed. If you could have seen his face," she told me. "I said, 'You're going to vote.' I walked over to the girl at the computer. She inputted (the necessary info). He was able to vote."



This is protecting democracy one vote at a time. I know, it's not enough - not when votes disappear wholesale on touchscreen machines; not when every electronic system is error-prone, privately serviced and hackable; not when our media watchdogs maintain an arrogant denial that anything could be wrong with the system; not when the folks in power don't care, or actively contribute to the problem. But I salute the vote protectors anyway, because without them democracy doesn't stand a chance.



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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
© 2006 Tribune Media Services, Inc.