by Zafar Bangash (World, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 9, Ramadan, 1425)
As the date (November 2) for the US presidential election draws near, the deep divisions in American society, exacerbated by George Bush’s policies, are becoming more pronounced. The two main political parties—Republican and Democratic—have marshalled more than 10,000 lawyers to fight legal battles in what is believed will be a closely contested race that is wide open to manipulation and fraud. Court-cases have already been filed over voter-registration, lack of transparency in voting procedures (especially through machines that do not give out paper receipts), and rules governing the conduct of election officials, many of whom are party stalwarts eager to support their own candidate.
A large number of eligible voters have been barred from registration altogether by fraud or intimidation. Ralph Nader, the independent third candidate, has been deliberately marginalized. The so-called presidential debates have also reinforced the impression that it is a two-way race between George Bush, the Republican incumbent, and John Kerry, his Democratic challenger. Nor were the presidential debates organized independently; they were carefully orchestrated events with advance agreement between the two parties about questions, format and even lighting. IfNader had participated, he would have exposed the two leading contenders– Bush and Kerry–as two sides of the same coin.
Regardless of who wins, the winner will carry out the agenda assigned to him by the elites who, while staying in the background, remain in firm control of crucial policy decisions. They allow the electoral farce to be enacted every four years to give their people the illusion of participation. As Harold Lasswell wrote in The Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (1933), the elites in society must not fall for the “democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests.” He suggested that ways must be found to ensure that the people endorse the decisions made by their farsighted leaders. America has polished this technique into an art form. In the mid-eighties, a group of visiting Russian journalists was astonished by the degree of uniformity in the American media and journalism. At the end of their tour, they asked: “How do you secure such compliance without pulling people’s fingernails out?”
Americans never tire of lecturing the world about freedom and democracy, yet they are almost completely oblivious of the realities of their own society. The fraud perpetrated by Bush and his allies in November 2000 appears benign by comparison with what has gone on this year already. Four years ago thousands of African Americans, who generally support the Democrats, were disenfranchised by means of a hurriedly passed bill in the Florida legislature (whose governor, JebBush, is the younger brother of George), and applied retroactively. All those accused of felony were barred from voting; many African-Americans were barred even when they had no felony charges against them. Despite this, Bush could claim to have won in Florida only by 537 votes. This massive fraud was finally endorsed by the US supreme court, giving Bush the presidency.
This time round such blatant fraud is much more difficult, so other tactics are being deployed. People known to be sympathetic to Kerry have been prevented, by intimidation or misrepresentation, from registering. The most blatant example has been that of students, who are legally entitled to vote away from home: hundreds of thousands have been prevented from doing so. Even Fox News, a right-wing television station, has waded into the fray, sending camera crews to scare students during campus registration drives, telling them that they are participating in an “illegal act”. Because of the general lack of interest in the elections anyway, this is a significant hindrance to efforts to register students; few can want to be filmed indulging in an “illegal” act, so many missed the registration deadline. George Knapp of KLAS TV in Las Vegas, Nevada, reported on October 12 that a Republican-funded group calling itself Voters Outreach of America trashed hundreds (perhaps thousands) of voter-registration forms in Las Vegas; all the trashed forms belonged to the Democrats. Similar illegal acts have been recorded in Oregon. A number of states—Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado and so on—are reported to be closely contested, and may hold up the election result for weeks because of legal challenges over voting irregularities.
Native Indians, African-Americans and Latinos have similarly been targeted. In some places, party officials wearing dark suits and dark glasses, sporting fake badges, have driven around neighbourhoods pretending to be law-enforcement officials. They have been demanding photo-IDs and telling people that if they have outstanding traffic-tickets or are late in making child-support payments they will be arrested when they go to vote. They have also harassed and intimidated poll-workers at advance polling-stations, questioned their ability to make rational judgements, and challenged their right to act as poll-workers. Many polling staff are elderly, not well informed, and vulnerable to such intimidation. “There are individuals and officials who are actively trying to stop people from voting who they think will vote against their party and that nearly always means stopping black people from voting Democratic,” Mary Frances Berry, head of the US Commission on Human Rights, has said. Millions of eligible voters, according to the website commondreams (September 23), are being disenfranchised in these ways.
Vicky Beasley, a field officer for People for the American Way, listed some of the ways voters have been “discouraged” from voting. “In elections in Baltimore in 2002 and in Georgia last year, black voters were sent fliers saying anyone who hadn’t paid utility bills or had outstanding parking tickets or were behind on their rent would be arrested at polling stations. It happens in every election cycle,” she said. In a mayoral election in Philadelphia last year, people pretending to be plainclothes police officers stood outside some polling stations asking people to identify themselves. There have also been reports of mysterious people videotaping people waiting in line to vote in black neighbourhoods. African-Americans and Latinos may be deterred from voting simply by election officials demanding to see drivers’ licences before handing them a ballot, according to Spencer Overton, law professor at George Washington University. Photographic identification is not a legal requirement unless they are first-time voters who registered by mail.
Such crude tactics pale into insignificance compared with electronic vote-rigging. A number of computer experts have testified that they “have been able to hack into both Diebold’s and Sequoia Voting Systems’ voting machines” that are being used in the presidential race. Abbie WaldmanDelozier and Vickie Karp, of Black Box Voting and the National Ballot Integrity Project Task Force respectively, confirmed this at a National Press Club conference in Washington in late September. Bev Harris, executive director of Black Box Voting, said: “We are able to use a hidden program for vote manipulation, which resides on Diebold’s election software. This is a hidden feature enabled by a two-digit trigger (not a ‘bug’ or an accidental oversight; it’s there on purpose).” Dr Herbert H Thompson, computer security expert and editor/author of twelve books, including How to Break Software Security, explained how easily an election could be rigged by implanting a virus, while Jeremiah Akin, an independent computer programmer from Riverside, California, has shown how to manipulate Sequoia Voting Systems software just before an election by switching the labels on the names of candidates.
Given the degree of antagonism that has gripped America as a result of Bush’s policies, neither side is prepared to give an inch this time. A number of American commentators have warned of catastrophic consequences if there is no clear-cut winner. America’s system of electoral colleges is also seen as deeply flawed: people do not elect the president directly; in each state the candidate who is “first past the post” takes all the electoral seats. Colorado, with nine electoral collegeseats, has introduced a proposal to have its seats allocated on the basis of proportional representation. This could lead to legal challenges and the outcome being uncertain for several months.
Regardless of who wins, the US is heading for rough times. The economy is in a tailspin, more than 1.9 million jobs have been lost, and Bush has accumulated a US$2-trillion deficit after starting his presidency with a surplus of US$5 trillion. Iraq is in a mess, but neither candidate has any plan to end the fiasco: Kerry is trying to out-hawk Bush over Iraq in order to appear “tough”. Israel’s crimes are being justified as following from its “right” to defend itself, yet Palestinians have no rights; nor do their lives matter. From October 1 to 15, Israeli forces killed at least 109 Palestinians, including 18 children and a 75-year-old grandmother, because two Israeli girls were killed accidentally when a crude rocket hit their home in an illegal Israeli settlement in Ghazzah on September 29. Israeli tanks smashed Palestinian homes and water pipes, chewed up roads, and uprooted olive trees in and around Jabaliya refugee-camp in Ghazzah. A 13-year-old girl, Iman al-Hams, was shot 20 times when she tried to run away from Israeli soldiers shooting in the area; such behaviour is routine in Occupied Palestine.
If Bush wins, he will claim that his hawkish policies have been endorsed by the American people, and so feel justified in attacking more countries, thereby intensifying hatred for Americans worldwide. Kerry is even more dangerous; he will do exactly what Bush has been doing, but with smiling face. Ultimately, what the US presidential election displays is a deep crisis of democracy itself. The façade is coming apart, and people everywhere are beginning to see it for what it is: a fraud. Only the American people themselves are too naive to realise and understand this.