Eyes on the Prize

By Phil Tajitsu Nash
Published November 3rd 2006 in Asian Week
Last Thursday, a Cleveland federal judge suspended Ohio’s new voter identification law, saying the state’s 88 counties are inconsistently applying the rule for people filling out absentee ballots. Lawyer Subodh Chandra, representing Service Employees International Union Local 1199 and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, won the first round to protect the voting rights of the disenfranchised, but another round of court battles looms before Election Day.

Chandra and other supporters of one-person-one-vote democracy are fighting a tough battle against a Republican Party in Ohio that is continuing the same dirty tricks they used to steal the election for George Bush. Conspiracy theorists looking for a smoking gun fired from the White House in 2004 missed the point that democracy died by a thousand cuts that November. Worse yet, there is no sign that the majority of the problems faced by disenfranchised voters in Ohio and elsewhere in 2004 have been remedied.

While I understand and support efforts such as the drive to use paper ballots instead of electronic voting machines that do not allow a recount, my answer can best be summarized in words from the old African American spiritual “Eyes on the Prize”:

“Only thing that we did wrong

Was stayin’ in the wilderness so long.

“Keep your eyes on the prize,

Hold on.

Keep your eyes on the prize,

Hold on.

“Only thing that we did right

Was the day we begun to fight!

“Keep your eyes on the prize,

Hold on!”

Voting for democrats is a necessary first step to stopping the republicans, who believe that one-party rule is appropriate for a democracy. However, many democrats are also limited by their inability to move beyond our antiquated winner-take-all, two-party democracy. We have wandered in the wilderness of an 18th-century form of democracy for over 200 years, but we can bring it into the 21st century as long as we continue to fight for our rights.

Many people at this time of year sigh and accept that the scurrilous campaign attack ads, primacy of out-of-state monied interest over in-state voters, and lack of concrete proposals to address universal health care and other key issues are a given in politics. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Take a moment to visit groups like www.fairvote.org, www.commoncause.org, www.nvri.org and www.publiccampaign.org. You will read about instant runoff voting, proportional representation, making election day a holiday, severing the ties between big money and politics, national popular voting (instead of electing the president using the antiquated and unfair Electoral College), and many other ways that our democracy could be brought up to the level of most of the rest of the world’s democracies.

Nov. 7 is the day we should retire the do-nothing, republican-led Congress and send a message to President Bush that his domestic and foreign policy leadership has been a failure.

Then on Nov. 8, we should start the clock running for the democrats, and remind them that if they do not immediately start bringing our democracy into the 21st century, then they, too, will have to be retired in future elections. There is nothing in our Constitution that guarantees a two-party system or most of the other practices that are preventing us from enjoying a one-person-one-vote democracy.

For me, the key litmus test will be whether democrats are willing to embrace reforms that will reduce the influence of money in politics, allow voters to have a meaningful multi-party choice when they vote, and provide safeguards so that the vote of every voter is considered as important as a million-dollar bank note. It will be hard to accomplish much with Bush, but the effort is important enough that it must begin immediately.

Voters in poor and minority communities, as Chandra has shown in Cleveland, face systemic barriers as well as individualized practices and procedures that make it hard for them to believe in the promise of one-person-one-vote democracy. And all of us face the threat that our votes could be undermined or stolen in a wholesale fashion by GOP-leaning software companies whose software is neither auditable nor provably hack-proof.

Yet with our eyes on the prize of a vibrant one-person-one-vote democracy, we must head to the ballot box on Nov. 7, and do our civic duty. See you there.