DAYTON, OHIO--You'd never guess that my friend Ken is so cynical. He's white and Harvard educated and comes off as the ultimate straight arrow in his off-the-rack suit. "Whether I vote or not doesn't matter," he likes to explain. "There's no chance that the outcome will be affected."
Indeed, there's only one known instance of a modern election having been decided by a single voter. On January 18, 1961, the Afro-Shirazi party won the parliamentary seat of Chake-Chake on Pemba Island in Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) by one vote, granting it victory in the general elections. Ken might feel differently if he lived in Chake-Chake.
Widespread apathy can affect millions of votes and hundreds of races on Election Day, leading to sweeping political changes and even optional pre-emptive wars that kill hundreds of thousands of people. But there's nothing that you, as an individual, can do to change such a trend. You can cast your one vote. Or not.
Even if you lived in Florida in 2000, which was declared a Bush win after the Supreme Court ordered officials to stop counting the ballots, the most that you could have accomplished was to have nudged Bush's margin down to 536 or up to 538. Even under ideal circumstances--reliable machines, politically neutral and incorruptible supervisors and a thorough process to ensure that every vote is counted--your vote, as an individual decision, cannot change which candidate wins or loses. Voting is a gesture, symbolically supporting the democratic process the way attending church flamboyantly expresses faith without demonstrating it--nothing more.
And these are not ideal circumstances.
This year's mid-term elections, coming on the heels of the brazenly stolen elections of 2000 and 2004, find the electorate in a grim mood that makes my friend Ken look like a relative Pollyanna. Eight percent of whites and a whopping 29 percent of blacks (up from 15 percent in 2004) told Pew Research Center pollsters that they don't trust the government to count their votes.
"This notion that elections are stolen and that elections are rigged is so common in the public sphere that we're having to go out of our way to counter them this year," says Democratic strategist Donna Brazile about get-out-the-vote drives directed at blacks, who vote Democratic at least 90 percent of the time. Given recent history, overcoming their distrust is an uphill battle.
The Republicans' theft of the key state of Florida in 2000 has been exhaustively documented by shelves of books and newspaper recounts. One, a July 15, 2001 New York Times report titled "How Bush Took Florida: Mining the Overseas Absentee Vote," looks at the GOP's propaganda campaign to pressure Republican-dominated canvassing boards to illegally accept hundreds of absentee ballots mailed in by overseas military personnel after Election Day. Based on this incident alone, Gore won Florida by 202 votes.
On November 24, 2000, vote counters for predominantly Democratic Miami-Dade county fled their office when scores of young goons hired by since-disgraced Republican leader Tom DeLay "trampled, punched or kicked" election officials, a scene that was broadcast on national television. "When the ruckus was over," reported The Times, "the protesters [sic] had what they had wanted: a unanimous vote by the board to call off the hand counting."
Miami-Dade, it later turned out, put Gore over the top by thousands more votes.
Blacks, the most reliably liberal voting bloc, were specifically targeted by Republican operatives determined to deny them their right to vote. Police officers loitered outside polling places, threatening them with arrest if they did not produce identification cards. (This thuggery is illegal.) More than 200,000 "felons," most of them black and many of them without criminal records, were purged from voting rolls by the state's Republican-run board of elections. The truth is, Florida was never close. Exit polls, which had never been wrong, were again correct. Al Gore won by many thousands of votes.
In 2004, Ohio was the state that determined the race for the White House. Once again, the secretary of state was a partisan Republican who had campaigned for George W. Bush, J. Kenneth Blackwell. As they had done in Florida four years earlier, Republican operatives posted cops outside inner-city precincts to intimidate black voters. They "purged" the rolls of registered voters who had missed two consecutive elections, disproportionately targeting areas with a large African-American population. And Blackwell added a few ingenious new tricks.
"In several of the state's pro-Kerry cities," write the authors of the new book What Happened in Ohio?: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election, "the secretary of state [Blackwell] effectively engendered a classic 'Catch-22' situation: as boards of election changed long-standing Democratic precinct locations shortly before the elections, Blackwell simultaneously disseminated out-of-date voter rolls to county officials, ensuring that many new voters would not be on precinct rolls given to poll workers. Then, to people who were confused as a result and did not end up at the correct precinct, he offered provisional ballots, but subsequently refused to count provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct--which was often simply the wrong table in the correct building and room ... Because of voting machine shortages, misinformation sent out by the secretary of state's office and/or improper signage at the precincts, many people waited for hours in the wrong precinct line in a newly relocated precinct. Often, these people found themselves ineligible to receive a provisional ballot unless they stood again in a different line."
Blackwell is off to bigger and better things this year, running for governor. But Republicans are still trying to stop Democrats from voting. In Orange County, south of Los Angeles, desperately trailing GOP Congressional candidate Tan Nguyen mailed a sleazy letter to 14,000 Latino Democrats warning that "If you are an immigrant, voting in a federal election is a crime that can result in incarceration, and possible deportation." Standard-issue Republican conflation: Naturalized immigrants are allowed to vote.
Intellectually, I know Ken is right. My vote can't change a thing. But I'll do anything George W. Bush doesn't want me to do. Even if I have to pretend I live in Chake-Chake.