Thursday, July 31, 2008

Behind the Curtain of American Elections: Nov. 2008

"We have every reason to believe that the 2008 election is going to be manipulated."

––Jonathan Simon, co-founder of Election Defense Alliance, a
national election integrity nonprofit
"Stealing America: Vote by Vote"

Everyone I know lugs around a low-grade dread, like an undetected virus invisible until the obvious outbreak, about the upcoming presidential election. Many of us (including a surprising number of non-partisans and Republicans) stoically retain the knowledge that something terrible happened during the 2000 and 2004 elections. And then there are others, myself included, who feel that nothing short of election-fraud occurred during both elections. But what exactly happened (okay, aside from a Court of five in 2000 throwing a victory party for GWB)? How can it be righted? And who’s going to do it? I mean, where’s the “Deep Throat” for “electiongate”? We are exporting democratic “ideals” to other countries, like Iraq and the Ukraine (with its Orange Revolution), yet they have a better voting system than ours. How can this be?

As increasingly they are wont to do, documentary filmmakers rush in where the media fears to tread. "Documentary" set out to discover as many election-fraud-related docs as we could find. By telephone, we interviewed two directors and an executive producer of the two most prominent efforts: "Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections" (dir., David Earnhardt) and "Stealing America: Vote by Vote" (dir., Dorothy Fadiman; exec. prod., Mitchell Block).

Personally, after screening these films, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to throw up my hands in despair and never vote again, or run out and organize a 21st century Weather Underground. One can be mad as hell, and swear she won’t take it anymore, but, realistically speaking, what can one person do? As frustrating and enraging as the revelations in these films are, fortunately, they also provide specific and practical plans of action for individuals and activist groups to increase vigilance and ensure election integrity. For, as Earnhardt, Fadiman and Block concur: it’s all about grassroots organization.

After the 2004 presidential election and the first comprehensive use of electronic voting machines, Earnhardt, a Nashville-based filmmaker, set out to unravel the mystery of why the election results were inconsistent with the exit polls. After three years of hearing “the election was stolen,” he said, “I wanted to find out how it was done.” Three years later, the answer is Uncounted, which systematically catalogs “the myriad of different ways the election was manipulated. It’s never just one thing,” Earnhardt told me. He has “linked the dots” of information seemingly randomly gathered by the media. The film makes a compelling case for election fraud by examining in depth the following issues:
• Exit Poll Discrepancies (“Nearly all the experts are in agreement that the exit polls could not have been so far off that they gave such distorted results. It’s far more rational that the voting process was compromised.” Rep. John Conyers, Chair, House Judiciary Committee)
• Systematic Purging or “Caging” of Voters (Purging of voters from the records before the election: 309,000 in Ohio in 2004. Bush’s winning margin in Ohio was 119,000 votes.)
• “Jim Crow” Voter Suppression in the 21st Century (According to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., blacks waited on average, 3.5 hrs to vote, while whites waited less than 18 minutes.)
• Undervoting (“When you see 42%, 70% and 80% undervotes in a precinct in this election, you know that’s not real. There’s something desperately not right.” 
Marybeth Kuznik, Pennsylvania poll worker)
• Vote Switching (Concentrated in certain areas, like–suprise!–Florida.)
• Illegal Behavior by a Major Voting Machine Manufacturer (Walden O’Dell, the CEO of Diebold, announced that he had been a top fundraiser for GWB. In a letter to potential donors, he wrote: “I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president…” NYT Nov. 9, 2003)
• Electronic Voting 
(“With all these [electronic] machines, you can alter the outcome of a national election in a way that is just unprecedented.” 
Andrew Gumbel, Journalist & author, Steal This Vote)
• Privatization of Our Election Process (“The further you go into privatizing this activity of running elections, the more you lose control over the very core of our democracy.” 
Lowell Finley, Deputy Secretary of State, California)
• Provisional Ballots

In addition to fine production values (especially the lack of the too-often-used invasive voice-over: when I mentioned this to Earnhardt, he said that he wanted to “let the story tell itself, unencumbered by narrative”) and a powerful investigative journalism approach, Uncounted–unrepentantly partisan–tackles the two voting machine companies–ES&S and Diebold–that electronically counted 80% of the votes in the 2004 presidential election. Both private, for-profit companies have extensive ties to the Republican Party. But, dig this, Diebold’s primary business is manufacturing ATM machines, which provide a paper receipt for transactions and has an audit trail. So why wouldn’t it supply the same paper trail for voting machines? Well, you probably don’t need three guesses.

But Earnhardt’s perspective extends beyond the relatively recent election debacles: “Historically,” he points out, “over the 230 years of this country’s past, [election manipulation] has been done both ways [by Republicans and Democrats]. But in recent years, it’s been in one direction–favoring Republicans.”

On this thrust, Dorothy Fadiman’s "Stealing America"–which highlights many of the same points and talking heads–adds an enlightening piece of information as expressed by Lynn Landes, Journalist/Political Scientist and former BBC Correspondent: “Even though the Republicans seem to control the voting technology and the corporations that count the votes, the Democrats have not exhibited a keen interest in addressing the situation.”

"Stealing America" hopes to appeal to a large college-age audience, and they’ve all but insured its popularity with these first-time voters by including segments from the zeitgeist conscience and mouthpiece: "The Daily Show" and "Colbert Report." "Stealing" bends over backwards to communicate a non-partisan viewpoint by including interviews with “the bad guys”–people who unashamedly admit to redirecting an election that favored George Bush over John Kerry–and “would/will do it again.”

One of those is Allen Raymond, author of the appropriately titled How to Rig an Election, who reveals how he was hired by the RNC to “jam phone lines.” “Almost a prank,” he said smiling, on "The Daily Show." “A prank on democracy,” responds the quick-witted Jon Stewart. “In politics, there’s right and wrong; then there’s what happens in a campaign,” Raymond says, still smiling, in an attempt to justify his actions.

With regard to documentaries, one of the most hotly discussed topics these days speculates about how much “good” they do, if their only audience is the “choir.” At "Documentary" we were especially interested in the plans Earnhardt, Fadiman and Block had to distribute their films to a wider audience.

Earnhardt’s “grassroots approach” has included traveling to 36 cities since mid-Jan, where he rents out theatres and screens the film for local integrity voter groups, and moderates lively after-film discussions: “People show up, who empathize, or have a sense that, something’s wrong, but haven’t got the info; the film really fires people up,” he says. Their alliance provides the groups a “platform” and a means of then continuing to share the information on their own, a DVD of "Uncounted" in hand. He calls this a “non-traditional approach, with a geometric factor.” For example, earlier this spring, 203 “house parties” were organized in 23 states and the District of Columbia. On this evening–Feb. 13, which happened to be Earnhardt’s birthday (“Yes, it was the best possible present”)–he participated in a 40-minute conference call among all 203 sites.

In addition to the public events in theatres, churches, community centers and even individual house parties, blogs are providing a great deal of notice and “buzz” about both the film and the topic of election fraud. And the film’s website provides ideas of actions people can take. The DVD is doing well far beyond their expectations and, through the website alone, has sold units to people in 20 countries as well as in every state of the Union. Eranhardt also gives credit to bloggers, who, he says, have significantly helped spread awareness of election issues. He’s now taking “a more retail market approach” by aligning with the distributor Disinformation Company and making the DVD available through both Amazon and Netflix.

His approach has worked and Earnhardt admits that the process has “affirmed my belief in the power of what one person can do. When things change, it usually starts with one person and evolves into citizen activism. Then the leadership has to listen.” But the “number one defense,” he advises, is to vote: “If you don’t vote, it definitely won’t be counted.”

Dorothy Fadiman, director, and Mitchell Block, executive producer, of "Stealing America," decided to approach the distribution issue through a “vision of college campuses.” As such, they have set up 1,000 screenings on campuses across the nation. There are two primary reasons for this, as Fadiman points out: to inform and educate (“it’s important to give college students a perspective on history”) and to increase the number of voters, “so the results are clearer. There’s a generation coming up who are not registered,” reasoned Fadiman. “The only way to head off a suspicious election before the votes are certified is to have a large lead going in.” Because younger voters tend to vote more liberally, she worries that her motivation may not be necessarily “a nonpartisan act.” But, in our conversations, both she and Block stressed the importance of “reaching out to people in a nonpartisan way to make them aware of voting issues.” As Block put it, “It’s important to understand that if you are making a film about something as important as voting, you’ll turn off half the audience [if it’s approached in a partisan manner]. On an issue as basic as voting, you don’t serve any purpose in speaking to only one party.” Their goal is for viewers to see the film, “not as an attack, but as a plea to protect our votes.”

The team is working with publicists in LA and NY and in Santa Fe and other cities, “so it gets high visibility,” Block explained. They are screening the film at 100 theatres and, like Earnhardt, working with field people to do outreach and activities groups, to build grassroots, and to help those groups. “It’s a good mix of not-for-profit and nonpartisan,” he continues, “mixed with traditional for-profit marketing.” Block also credits the blogoshere with advancing notice of the film. (

Fadiman spoke at length about Matthew Segal, a recent college graduate and the founder and executive director of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE), a student-led, non-profit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to removing access barriers and increasing civic education for young people; he is also a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute–the nation’s first student-run think-tank. Segal’s vision for what he will be doing with "Stealing America" on college campuses and with related activities includes 12-point program. Segal hopes to:
provide a college tour of film screenings at SAVE’s 35 (and growing) college chapters (inviting a panel of speakers for discussion afterwards when possible)
disseminate an election reform package at each screening focusing on issues to protect student voting rights such as: voter ID reform, registration access, proportional voting machine allocation, voter verification, absentee ballot access
organize screenings throughout Ohio and other states with the help of Common Cause, People for the American Way, and the NAACP
provide access to many politicians, coordinate lobbying efforts, political meetings in state legislatures and on Capitol Hill
blog about SAVE on Huffington Post and on SAVE’s own blog
use new media such as Facebook, Myspace, Digg, Stumbleupon and Youtube to create more hits for the SAVE website as well as spread more info about the film
create a website for young people to report their question/concerns/stories about registering and casting their votes
reach out to political science and government professors to screen films and hold class discussions.

Segal’s fine ideas fit Fadiman’s objective, which is “to make people alert and aware that the election systems we have in place, are not secure, and not be afraid or shy to raise our voices.”

Admittedly, this is an uphill battle, as David Earnhardt cautions: “Election manipulation rarely even makes a top ten issues list. But think about it–if your vote doesn’t count, then nothing else really matters.”

Other DVDs available on the topic of Election Integrity

"American Blackout" (Ian Inaba, director; Anastasia King, producer; GNN Productions)

"Free For All" (John Wellington Ennis, director;

"Recount Democracy" (Danny Schecter, director; Faye Anderson, producer; Pathfinder Pictures;

An excerpt of this article was first published in the Fall 2008 issue of DOCUMENTARY Magazine.

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