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By Paula Martinac
Elect to get involved
In response to the presidential-election debacle of 2000, in which both parties reported voting irregularities in a number of key states, a group of concerned Americans created a national, nonpartisan voting-rights project called Election Protection 2004. The general election is fast approaching, but there’s still time for gay people to join in this volunteer effort to safeguard the foundation of our democracy – the right to vote for our representatives in government.
I don’t need to preach to lesbian and gay readers about the importance of voting – we go to the polls in much higher percentages than the American people as a whole. We understand all too well that whoever sits in the Oval Office contributes heavily to setting the climate for gay people in this country. And we know that by giving an enthusiastic stamp of approval to the Federal Marriage Amendment, our current president has officially sanctioned intolerance of lesbians and gay men.
But we may need to be reminded that, for many Americans, voting is an endangered right. And we need to challenge the idea that discussing voting problems openly and trying to do something about them is just “sour grapes” over the 2000 election or an unwillingness to “get over” its results (which two of my colleagues in the gay media once accused me of). If you have any doubts about how vital it is to question the accuracy and fairness of our voting system, just rent the documentary “Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election,” which outlines in a succinct 50 minutes the mistakes and abuses that led to widespread voter disenfranchisement in Florida four years ago.
The likelihood that the 2004 election will be a close one increases the risk of civil-rights violations, especially in the swing states; indeed, there have already been warning signs of polling-place abuse. During the primary in Florida last month, for example, poll watchers reported that many African-American voters were being turned away for not having identification, and without being informed that they could, by state law, simply sign an affidavit attesting to their identity and then proceed to vote. And that was just the primary – imagine how high the stakes will be for the actual presidential election.
Also, Florida has once again undertaken a purge of convicted ex-felons from its voter rolls, as it did in 2000, when it disenfranchised thousands of voters who had no criminal records at all. It’s no accident that this multimillion-dollar effort, in a state headed by the president’s brother, has targeted mostly African Americans, who tend to vote Democratic.
Understandably, anxiety is running high among voting-rights activists, who worry in particular about voting equipment. In Ohio, one of the top battleground states, punch-card ballots – made notorious in 2000 for their high margin of error – will be used in 69 of 88 counties. One law professor told the Cincinnati Enquirer that a close election in his state could spell an “election night meltdown.” Around the country, touch-screen voting, which is being implemented in many areas for the first time and which leaves no paper trail, is also cause for trepidation. Touted by many congressional Republicans as the answer to all our voting problems, electronic ballots completely – and conveniently – eliminate all possibility of recounts and put our most cherished right at the mercy of the corporations that manufacture the equipment and software.
All of this suggests that Nov. 2, 2004, might be a pretty dark day for democracy. But the good news is that there are concrete things we can do now to try to aid the democratic process. First, to ensure that your own vote counts, familiarize yourself in advance with your state’s voting procedures and your own rights, which can be found on the website of your Secretary of State or your county’s Bureau of Elections. Then expand your effort a little by committing to “Take a Friend to Vote,” a project of the League of Women Voters, in which citizens pledge to bring a neighbor, friend, or relative to the polls. (For instructions, visit www.lwv.org.)
But to make an even greater contribution, consider volunteering for Election Protection (www.electionprotection2004.org), which aims to train and deploy 25,000 citizens as poll watchers in battleground states. TracFone is providing phones and air time for poll workers to report abuses or to consult with civil-rights attorneys if problems arise. While lawyers and law students are particularly needed for this project, all concerned citizens are welcome to volunteer for tasks like handing out voting-rights flyers in the days preceding the election. If you live in Michigan, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, or another swing state, or are able to travel to one of them for Election Day, the time you donate could have a big impact on the accuracy of the election – and on the future well-being of our democracy.