by Michael Aubry
Down for the Count by Andrew Gumbel, The New Press, 2016
In the 2015 movie, Our Brand is Crisis, Sandra Bullock plays a famous American political consultant coaxed out of retirement to accept the challenge of running a campaign for a corrupt South American presidential candidate. After a brutal campaign, at the very last minute, her candidate pulls ahead and narrowly wins –- only to immediately turn around and betray the very people who supported him. He goes for the money. In reaction to his knife-in-the-back, Bullock’s battle-weary character sighs: “If voting changed anything, they would make it illegal.” The stark reality expressed in that quote is what any American of voting age might see as the one moment of truth in the entire movie. That truth is part of the American DNA.
Why such cynicism (expressed originally by the real-life Emma Goldman) is so deeply felt in America is meticulously and convincingly explored by journalist Andrew Gumbel in Down for the Count: dirty elections and the rotten history of democracy in America. (Originally published in 2005 as Steal this Vote, it has been revised and updated just in time for 2016 election.) Gumbel shows that in the U. S. there has always been a focused effort to keep voting “from changing anything” and that a significant part of that effort has been concentrated on keeping voting out of the reach of many people –- in effect, making it “illegal.” Gumbel argues that in American elections have, from day one, been “fixed” in one way or another, and that there has never been any particular interest among those who have the power to change the system to do so –- because they are the ones who benefit from the corrupt status quo. And, he claims that this has never been truer than it is today. He places the blame for this systemic imbroglio squarely at the feet of the “relentless politicization” of American elections which is driven by the two-party duopoly.
To describe election fraud is to describe a virus that in a Darwinian fashion evolves in response to selective pressure like regulation. From a historical perspective the subject is an unwieldy mass, a Gordian knot, containing elements that cannot easily be pulled apart, yet Gumbel has done an admirable job of examining the parts while maintaining their relationship to the whole.
The nearly three-hundred page book is a sordid history of American elections beginning with the elitist, anti-democratic founding fathers. From there Gumbel moves to the effect of slavery on elections, to the corruption of Tammany Hall, to the loop-hole laden Reconstruction Amendments (numbers 14 and 15) and in their wake the highly contentious presidential election of 1876 (arguably the pinnacle of voting corruption in U.S history), to the South’s legacy of voting disenfranchisement, to the ignominious political heritage of Chicago, to Bush v. Gore (which ended in a declaration by the U.S. Supreme Court that U.S. citizens do not have a constitutional right to vote), to digital-age voting chicanery, and finally big money in elections.
Along the way we encounter a rogues gallery of characters and a sometimes overwhelming procession of their unscrupulous techniques –- most of them with euphemistic names (“packing and cracking,” “four-legged voting,” “pipe-laying” ) that belie their menace. Gumbel reminds us that in the U. S., unlike other modern democracies, voter fraud is the rule rather than the exception.
The obvious question is: why does our flawed election system endure? The answer, of course, is complicated and involves a potent mix of inherited factors. While it is difficult to examine these forces independently (they are the incestuous ingredients of a national character-defining stew) Gumbel begins by looking at primordial version of that stew which he feels gave birth to the “tainted” character of U. S. elections.
Although the rationales for corruption in the election process and the means of its execution have changed considerably over the centuries, there appears to be at its core a persistent elitist energy that began with the founding of the country. In the early days of the U.S., what many of us might now view as socially or politically unfair was considered common sense for the time. Washington, Jefferson and the other founders lived in a different age, with different challenges, and possessed a different mindset than we have today. It was a time “when universal suffrage was still viewed as a dangerous eccentricity, not the norm of civilized societies.” So while the founders were greatly influenced by the Enlightenment, they were in many ways, by today’s standards, unenlightened.
The founders were leery of democracy and the tyranny of the masses, and were squarely in the tradition that believed in a natural ruling class. Liberty to them meant the protection of property rights, not democracy. So, “voting rights, such as they were, were granted on the basis of property owned by male citizens of European ancestry.” (Almost two centuries before, John Winthrop, leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, may have sown the seeds for what would become the prevailing American elitist attitude in what is now known as the “City Upon a Hill” speech when he declared: “God Almighty, in his most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; and others mean and in submission.”)
While it’s not entirely fair to take the founders to task for not meeting our modern standards, we might justifiably wonder why in 2016 we are still stuck with many of the deeply embedded consequences of their now anachronistic world view – for example, the elitist mindset in the election process. Gumbel points to ample evidence of an elitist bias built into the very foundation of our government, in particular in the Constitution and certain of its provisions: the presidency, Article II and the Electoral College, and the U.S. Senate.
Regarding the presidency, Gumbel notes that the founding fathers intentionally rejected a parliamentary system and “invested the presidency with many of the powers associated with the monarchy they had rebelled against; Thomas Jefferson called it an ‘elective monarchy’.” Meanwhile, the Senate was the price the Southern states demanded in return for their participation in the Union, and this arrangement granted a small population of Southern elites, those who could vote, vastly disproportionate representation and power. Gumbel observes that we are taught in school that the Senate was an example of democracy in action, a brilliant check against governmental hegemony, when in reality it was the opposite, a “bulwark against ‘too much democracy’.”
At the very heart of the election quagmire, according to Gumbel, lays Article II of the Constitution. This is where the president-electing Electoral College is defined. Gumbel calls Article II a “dissatisfying compromise… as notable for what it did not achieve as what it did.” Specifically, it did not establish a constitutional right for everyone to vote, or a method for selecting members of the Electoral College who elect the president, or clear rules for a tied or disputed election. Article II was and continues to be an anti-democratic invitation to election disaster.
To illustrate the elitist intent of Article II, Gumbel quotes a New York Times article from the late 1800s: “It would be a great gain if people could be made to understand distinctly the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness involves, to be sure, the right to good government, but not the right to take part, either immediately or indirectly, in the management of the state.” In addition to being condescending, the words inadvertently expose the Achilles heel of our political and electoral process: the disconnect between the “right to good government,” and who gets to define what that means.
Racism and capitalism, two additional manifestations of the elitist paradigm, complete Gumbel’s picture of our complicated political inheritance. Regarding racism he writes, “It is impossible to look back over the past two hundred years without seeing how race and racial discrimination have been hardwired into the U. S. political consciousness.” From slavery, through Reconstruction and Jim Crow to the present where “more African Americans are in the prison system today than were enslaved in 1850,” there has been a concerted effort on many fronts to suppress the voting rights of African Americans and other minorities. And there seems to be no end in sight.
As for capitalism, in America the relationship between capitalism and government has never been one of simple reciprocity, rather, early on the relationship became a marriage and ascended quickly to the lofty heights of ideology. Gumbel points out that since the Jacksonian era there has been an “abiding belief… that the interests of democracy and the interests of capitalism were one and the same.” This attitude was fueled by industrialists who saw “the will of the people as a dangerously unpredictable obstacle to their business ambitions and became ever more cynical about manipulating it to suit their needs.” Their agenda applied “the ethos of the marketplace to the political world.” This is what we now call neoliberalism where the distinction between the marketplace and society is erased. Gumbel feels we now live in a “new Gilded Age” where “the power of corporate money has, if anything, been allowed to run more rampant… the superrich are far more active politically than most of us.” Former Secretary of Labor and current Professor of Public Policy at Berkley, Robert Reich, recently presented a sobering example of this when he observed, “ In the 2012 presidential election, the richest 0.01 percent of households gave Democratic candidates more than four times what unions contributed to their campaigns.” Gumbel asks: who is the average elected official going to listen to and “still be in the game” –- the public, or his or her Wall Street patrons?
But wait –- aren’t there laws regulating the election process to make it fair and level the playing field? Well, yes and no. Sort of. By the end of the book you feel like a sheep discussing what to have for dinner with four wolves — which has been embraced by some as the definition of democracy. The picture is not pretty. The essential problem is the sheer complexity of our federalist election system. Gumbel describes a patchwork array of procedures, systems, and regulations –- national, state, county, and local –- so complex that it leaves the process vulnerable to manipulation and difficult to monitor and regulate. “Unfortunately, the prevailing view in Washington is that election management should be left up to the individual states… an obstinate and irrational position given the failure of many states to police themselves…” We all know what kind of shenanigans such a system can lead to, and Gumbel presents a festering boatload of examples. And while, because of the complexity of variables involved, it is impossible to be precise in assessing the damage done by voter suppression techniques, like voter ID laws, he presents recent data that suggests somewhere between 0.8 and 3.2 percent of the vote was affected in the 2012 presidential election.
However, you don’t have to break the law to suppress the vote. There are techniques such as gerrymandering that are legal. Gumbel describes gerrymandering as “the decennial political orgy where politicians (in most states) get to redraw their own district maps and invariably boost their own party at the expense of their adversaries.” Although crude, old- school election fraud techniques, like voting multiple times, are virtually impossible today, they have been replaced by modern technology-driven strategies like gerrymandering which uses elaborate computer programs and algorithms to break “down the population neighborhood by neighborhood, even street by street, to separate out Democrats from Republicans –- and, in many cases, blacks from whites.”
The next factor hindering equitable elections Gumbel examines is our misguided reliance on technology to solve our election woes. This has resulted in the current voting machine conundrum. There have been dozens of mechanical and electronic voting solutions invented over the years. The mechanical ones were easily manipulated; a paper clip would do. And remember the Votamatic machines that relied on punch cards that resulted in the now infamous “hanging chads” of the 2000 election? Unfortunately, the perceived savior of election integrity, digital voting machines, turned out to be so complicated that even the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) couldn’t keep up with their vulnerability to bugs, malicious code, and hacking. The FEC’s eventual response was to draw up standards for the voting machines, but amazingly (or predictably) it failed to provide any directions for the testing and enforcement of those standards. It turns out that the labs who tested the machines “were paid directly by the voting machine companies and competed for their business.”
Gumbel accuses the FEC of being a main element of our election woes. The FEC is essentially a political entity. He is amazed that, unlike other democracies, America does not have a truly independent central electoral commission with clear election guidelines and the teeth to enforce them. A New York Times article, “FEC Can’t Curb 2016 Election Abuse” from May 15 of last year quoted the chairwoman of the FEC, Ann Ravel, who admitted that the agency was “’worse than dysfunctional’” and that there is “a worsening stalemate among the agency’s six commissioners. They are perpetually locked in 3-to- 3 ties along party lines.”
Still, you say, don’t we have other voter protection mechanisms like the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments? Sorry, those amendments only address voter discrimination based on race, and their loopholes leave “plenty of room to introduce restrictions on the grounds of something other than race and still penalize blacks and other unfavored social groups through more circuitous means.” But didn’t the Voter Rights Act of 1964 resolve those problems? Sorry, that legislation was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013 –- an act that prompted the title of a recent article in Nation magazine to declare, “The Gutting of the Voting Rights Act Could Decide the 2016 Election.”
Wait a minute — the Supreme Court is fertilizing election fraud? Well, apparently, interference with the election process can come from below at the smallest local level (e.g. poll workers in Alabama being allowed to arbitrarily vouch for the identity of a voter without a picture ID) or from above at the highest level. The Supreme Court is not immune to ideology. In addition to eviscerating the Voting Rights Act, it stopped the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election, and in the Citizens United ruling it opened the floodgates for Big Money in elections and unleashed the “super PACs” into our democracy.
Election dirty tricks have become a sophisticated science driven by ideologues and both political parties. The two parties are armored by two pernicious characteristics: impenetrable barriers against challenge by new parties, and constitutional sanction of their right to work independently in pursuit of their political goals with very little outside regulation leaving them to act with virtual impunity. Throughout the book Gumbel heaps disdain on top of contempt for the two-party system. He shows that there is no incentive for either party to fight for a fairer system even if they think an election has been bought or stolen by their adversary. “If the race is close and the stakes are high, the impulse is to fight like dogs to overturn the result — and, if that’s not possible, to find more money and fight harder and dirtier the next time.” (The meltdown in Florida in 2000 should have been a wakeup call, but instead it became an excuse for the two parties to dig their heels in even deeper.) Gumbel feels that the parties are bloated slaves to their “unrelenting master” — campaign money — and have corrupted the democratic process. Both parties are equally to blame.
Gumbel is a British-born journalist currently living in Los Angeles. His strength is that he has worked as a journalist in many modern democracies, particularly in Eastern Europe, and he has seen how they function in contrast to the U. S. system. In the book he wonders why it is that, if American-style government is as good as it claims to be, so few other modern democracies have adopted it. This is a question most Americans might find difficult to answer short of a knee-jerk response along the lines of: “well, it’s not perfect, but it’s still the greatest democracy in the world.” Which prompts the question: why can’t we admit its imperfections and make it even better?
There are many reasons, the majority of which have already been addressed. But there are other reasons we might drag our feet. One of them falls into the elitist tradition but is more subtle (and maybe more insidious) than the more obvious ones. It is an influential force that perhaps Gumbel’s “outsider” perspective allows him to describe more objectively. The reason involves two traditional American paradigms (secular government and religion) that are rhetorically interbred. They run on the same energy source: lofty ideals and abstractions –- gargantuan statements –- that don’t match their actual outcomes or our actual behavior. We distract and fool ourselves with high-mindedness because that is easier than fixing our election problems –- and the elites know this. America, seen through this lens, is a place where we are all sinners (imperfect), but in either system (secular or religious) we can always be saved by a greater power if we just have faith in it.
Gumbel notes the rhetoric we use to describe our “imperfect” political system. It is “exceptional,” driven by “Manifest Destiny,” “endowed by a Creator.” It emanates from a “City on a Hill,” and is populated by “Chosen People” whose laws are codified in a Constitution “almost divine in inspiration, a document so pure that to question it, is to attack the very marrow of the country’s being.” Gumbel calls it “Constitution worship” that has “the ’trappings of a religious cult’ –- no longer just a foundational law but rather a timeless national creed.”
Through such ritualized devotion we make a choice to float in the ether of our myths. In other words, for many of us living in the “world’s greatest democracy,” the idealistic rhetoric that we are programmed with lessens our resolve to fix problems that are hardwired into our political system. Gumbel makes this reader think: What would happen if we replaced our lofty origin myth of demi-god founding fathers with the reality of slavery and colonialism?
In the end Gumbel is not optimistic about the future. He thinks there are definite solutions to our political dilemma, but he sees numerous enemies of election reform. The big three are: racism, the two-party system, and big money, followed closely by a “dismally ill-informed” American public, the lack of a central electoral commission, and finally, an absence of motivation in our elected officials.
Gumbel offers a long “wish list” of solutions including the repeal of Citizens United, a real Voting Rights Act or Amendment and the establishment of uniform election regulations, the abolition of the Electoral College, and the promotion of more competition through more creative voting strategies than the restrictive two-party winner-take-all system. But — he is soberly realistic about the prospects of any of these suggestions coming to fruition.
At the end of the book Gumbel quotes Jimmy Carter who described America as “just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery.” He points to a 2014 academic study which concluded that the majority of American people have little influence over the government or its policies. What we have as a poor substitute are comforting rituals like regular elections that make us “feel” as if we are making a difference. But this is a hollow democracy.
In the Netflix-produced political drama House of Cards, Kevin Spacey plays Frank Underwood, a ruthless and ambitious American politician who claws his way to the Oval Office by destroying anything that gets in his way. At one point early in the series the then Vice President Underwood breaks the fourth wall when he turns and looks directly into the camera and into the viewers’ eyes and says with deep sincerity: “Democracy is so overrated.”
As a post script to the description of Gumbel’s work, I offer a couple of items that hopefully provide some perspective on the current state of election affairs as we head into the November presidential election. Firstly, based on leaked emails, there now seems to be significant evidence that the Democratic National Committee tried to sabotage the Sanders’ primary campaign. While the DNC was supposed to have been neutral between the two candidates, it instead vigorously promoted Hillary Clinton and discussed ways to undermine Sanders’ character and campaign. Secondly, this evidence was followed by a report, “Democracy Lost,” published by Election Justice USA. The report found “evidence for various types of fraud and targeted voter suppression impacting the outcomes of the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries.” The investigation examined registration records, emails to and from officials, phone records, or exit poll affidavit testimony. The exit poll data was statistically compared to established correlations between exit polls and actual vote tallies. The study found disturbing discrepancies, particularly in the Democratic primary, that exceeded the expected margin of error. In conclusion, the report calculated an estimated 184 delegates that may have been lost to Sanders. Taking those delegates from Clinton and giving them to Sanders would have been enough to give him the nomination. Granted, these conclusions are all based on statistical analysis relying on past benchmarks and margins of error, and while we can’t say with absolute certainty that the results of the study are accurate, they do give one pause.