DC at Night

DC at Night

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Electoral Dysfunction

With election day fast approaching, here is a simple quiz for you. In America, is voting a right or a privilege? Let's handle the question this way. If you think voting is a right, raise your left hand. If you think it is a privilege, raise your right. OK. I see some of you have your left hands up, some have your right, and a lot of you haven't raised either hand, which means you either think it could be both or you're not sure.

To get our definitive answer, let's go to the Constitution and see what our Founding Fathers had to say about voting. And since that handwriting can be difficult to make out, we'll use a big magnifying glass. But no matter how hard we look or how big we make the words, there's a problem. That's because the Constitution, despite common misconceptions, makes absolutely no mention of voting. So I suppose you could say the rights/privilege question is a trick one. There is no answer.

Let's try an easier question. But this time, we'll narrow the field. Only those who voted for president in the 2008 election can answer. How many of you voted for Barrack Obama? How many voted for John McCain? Well, I have some bad news for you. You are all wrong. In actuality, no one in America votes directly for a presidential candidate. Instead, under our current Electoral College (not to be confused with the expensive college where you, your children, or your grandchildren may be going) system, you actually vote for electors, who in turn vote for the president of the United States.

Confused yet. Well, you should be. Our electoral system, with 50 states and 13,000 districts all handling voting in a different way, is a chaotic, confusing mess, controlled by archaic rules and nonsensical regulations which often lead to bitter, prolonged political battles. Which means it is the ideal subject for an irreverent, but non-partisan documentary film which should leave viewers whipsawing between hillarity, sadness, awe, and anger.

Tonight, we were invited to attend the Washington D.C. premier of just such a film, Electoral Dysfunction sponsored by The Center for American Progress.

The film stars former Daily Show with Jon Stewart correspondent Mo Rocco. Rocco's quest—set against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential election—leads him to Indiana, home to some of the toughest voting laws in the country. He meets two feisty Hoosiers, Republican Dee Dee Benkie and Democrat Mike Marshall, who take him inside their efforts to turn out every voter. Dee Dee, who worked in Karl Rove’s office at the White House and Republican National Committee member, has met her match in Mike, a savvy political consultant and former State Representative. As he progresses on his journey, Rocco investigates the heated battle over Voter ID and voter fraud; searches for the Electoral College; critiques ballot design with Todd Oldham; discovers a 90-year-old  nun who wasn't allowed to vote in Indiana because her passport had expired, and explores the case of a former felon who was sentenced to ten years in prison—for the crime of voting.

Following the showing of the 90-minute film which prompted periodic bursts of laughter and a few spontaneous waves of applause from the crowd at the Landmark E Cinema, one of the directors, Bennett Singer, and Judith A. Browne Dianis, a lawyer and co-director of the national civil rights  Advancement Project ,who was featured in the film, discussed the heated question of voting in America.

Singer said that original plans had called for the film to be finished and released by 2010. However, it is just being released now. "In some ways, the timing couldn't be better to take a big picture view of our electoral process," Singer said.

Singer said the major problem in making the film came from the difficulty of the subject. "How do you take this epic story and turn it into an 86-minute film," he said. "We were trying to look at where we are as a nation and how can we encourage people to think about viable reform."

"To me, the most eye-opening revelation is that we have this notion that voting is so intrinsic to who we are as a nation and voting rights are not universally affirmed by the Constitution," Singer noted.

Dianis, whose organization is currently involved in "an avalanche of laws that would restrict voting rights" around the country says "it is clear that there is a movement to restrict who can vote."

"I've been told there is no war on voting. I want to tell you there is. Our whole Democracy is being undermined. Election days is the 1 day when we all should be equal," she said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you carefully watch Electoral  Dysfunction with an open mind, it's virtually impossible to disagree with the contention that our election process is in desperate need of  reform. During the post-film discussion several reform options were advanced. One was a Constitutional Amendment eliminating the Electoral College and making the election of a president directly the result of national public vote. Another was creating a uniform election system for all 50 states. A 3rd called for the creation of a non-partisan election group to oversee elections in much the same way that the Federal Reserve Board oversees money issues.  

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