consortiumnews.com

Bush's Unaccountability Moment

By Nat Parry
January 20, 2005

George W. Bush has declared his election victory the “accountability moment,” which both cleanses him of blame for the war in Iraq and may clear the way for new wars in the future, a kind of absolution and blessing combined.

Bush reportedly is asserting, too, that his mandate puts him above post-Vietnam War laws that require a president to inform Congress of covert operations and get war-powers approval. Journalist Seymour Hersh seems on target when he describes plans to both circumvent the rules on covert actions and consolidate these secret activities under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his band of neoconservatives in the Pentagon.

Like a recent story in Newsweek, Hersh indicates in a New Yorker article that Bush may seek to replicate the “death squad” operations used in the 1980s against leftist rebels and their supporters in Central America. Hersh said the new approach will include deploying counter-terrorist “action teams” in Iraq and around the world.

“Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in El Salvador?” a former high-level intelligence official asked Hersh, recalling the Salvadoran “death squads.” “We founded them and we financed them,” the ex-official said. Now, a former military officer added, “We’re going to be riding with the bad boys.”

According to Hersh's article, Bush also appears to be laying the groundwork for at least limited attacks against military targets in Iran, with Congress largely kept in the dark. [See Hersh’s “The Coming Wars,” New Yorker, Jan. 24-31, 2005, and Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s ‘Death Squads.’”]

Dashed Hopes

These new disclosures undercut hopeful speculation from former State Department official Richard Holbrooke and other Establishment Democrats that Bush might pursue a more moderate foreign policy the next four years. They have noted that incoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has tapped a few moderate conservatives for second-tier jobs at Foggy Bottom.

But the purging of dissident analysts at the CIA, the ouster of heavyweight skeptics (such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft) from administration posts, and the transfer of more authority to Rumsfeld’s ideologues are far more significant signs of Bush's intended direction as he starts his second term.

“We had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 elections,” Bush said in an interview with the Washington Post. “The American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me.” [Washington Post, Jan. 16, 2005]

So, given Bush’s reliance on his electoral mandate as justification for his war policies, it’s not just an academic exercise to consider how legitimate that mandate actually was.

Electoral Lessons

On Nov. 2, did the American people endorse Bush’s actions or was this another case where a variety of dirty political tactics – such as boosting the negatives of his opponent and improperly rigging the election-day vote totals – combined to make Bush the winner?

Also, what lessons do the elections of 2000 and 2004 hold for Democrats and other Bush opponents on the Left? While there were similarities in the two Democratic debacles, there were intriguing contrasts as well.

In 2000, for instance, many progressives underestimated the risks of a Bush presidency, backing Green Party candidate Ralph Nader while arguing that Al Gore and George Bush were basically the same. In 2004, after Bush had revealed himself to be a right-wing autocrat, many progressives reversed course, bit their lips and supported John Kerry.

Because of that reversal in 2004, however, the Democratic Establishment took the Left for granted, positioned Kerry as a centrist, and tried to finesse a victory without sharply challenging Bush’s leadership.

Neither strategy worked, however. Exploiting his opponents’ divisions in 2000 and their passivity in 2004, Bush managed to keep the two races close through Election Day and then seized the victories despite Democratic complaints of foul play.

The post-election strategies also had marked differences, though the outcome turned out the same. In 2000, many Nader supporters and progressives sat on the sidelines of the Florida recount battle, still insisting that the differences between Bush and Gore made the struggle meaningless. It fell to candidate Gore and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson to lead the fight, citing disenfranchisement of voters and demanding recounts.

In 2004, the roles largely flipped. Kerry conceded the day after the election when his Democratic advisers concluded that the pivotal state of Ohio was beyond his reach. But this time, the Greens stepped forward demanding a recount in Ohio, while the Congressional Black Caucus and many grassroots activists loudly protested electoral fraud and voter disenfranchisement.

Rank-and-File Anger

With Kerry bowing out on Nov. 3, much of the anger that rank-and-file Democrats had focused on Nader in 2000 was transferred to the Massachusetts senator, who was seen as reneging on his promise to ensure that every vote was counted. Many in the Democratic base saw Kerry’s hasty concession as proof that the Republicans weren’t entirely wrong in mocking him as a flip-flopper.

During the campaign, Kerry had vowed to “prevent them from stealing the election again.”

“We’re going to pre-check it, we’re going to have the legal team in place,” Kerry said. “We’re going to take injunctions where necessary ahead of time. We’ll pre-challenge if necessary.”

Kerry set aside a special fund for the purpose of battling the election out in the courts if it came to that. The campaign solicited contributions for a special legal fund “to win the post election day battles.”

The stated intent of the Kerry campaign fit in well with the determination of millions across the country who were committed to ousting Bush and protecting the integrity of the election. Not only were rank-and-file Democrats supporting Kerry with record donations – Democrats actually surpassed Republican fundraising – but an unprecedented grassroots effort was launched to protect the right to vote.

Thousands of lawyers and volunteers worked all over the country as part of an Election Protection drive that was organized by groups such as People for the American Way and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Voting rights advocates launched efforts to educate voters of their rights at the polls, so that no one would be improperly turned away. The San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange arranged for dozens of international observers to come to the U.S. from all over the world.

In addition to these efforts, activists planned emergency demonstrations for the post-election period. The Ruckus Society, the League of Pissed Off Voters and the Truth Force Training Center launched a project called This Time We’re Watching, stating that in 2000, “people didn’t use the power of nonviolent protest quickly or effectively enough” to prevent the stolen election. To prevent the same mistake, they would arrange protest and direct action in advance.

Others coordinating demonstrations included the No Stolen Elections coalition, United for Peace and Justice, and a group called Beyond Voting. At the Web site Nov3.us, tens of thousands of people pledged to protest in case the Republicans tried to steal the election again.

Bush Operatives

A similarity in the two presidential elections was that Bush was put over the top in the Electoral College with votes from a state where the chief election official also chaired the Bush presidential campaign. In 2000, it was Florida’s Secretary of State Katherine Harris; in 2004, it was Ohio’s Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell.

In 2000, the most notorious cases of voter disenfranchisement occurred in Florida. Thousands of Gore votes apparently were lost due to confusing “butterfly ballots” and inferior voting machines used in low-income precincts. Also, thousands of mostly African-American voters were barred from voting because they were misidentified as former felons and knocked off the voting rolls. Then, after the election, Bush and the Republicans blocked any meaningful recounts.

Bush ultimately succeeded by getting five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court to halt a state court-ordered recount. Only months later was it discovered that Bush would have lost Florida if all legally cast votes were counted, according to an unofficial tally done by news organizations in 2001. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “So Bush Did Steal the White House.”]

In 2004, Bush’s allies were at it again, though this time, the pre-election shenanigans were obvious in both Florida and Ohio.

In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration again sought to conduct a purge of voters who had past felony convictions. Again, too, the list of 47,000 alleged felons was riddled with thousands of cases of mistaken identity. It also didn't include names of Hispanics who tend to vote Republican in Florida.

In Florida’s heavily Democratic Broward County, 58,000 absentee ballots went missing a week before the election, leading some to suspect intentional fraud.

Meanwhile, in Ohio, Secretary of State Blackwell rejected thousands of voter registrations on the basis of an arcane law that requires registration forms to be on 80-pound paper.

In minority neighborhoods of Baltimore, campaign fliers were distributed that urged residents to vote on the day after the election and warned, “Before you come to vote make sure you pay your parking tickets, motor vehicle tickets, overdue rent.” These tactics also emerged in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Besides these attempts at voter suppression, there were also widespread concerns about new paperless electronic voting machines, with experts warning that they were open to fraud and manipulation. Computer-science researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Rice University examined the software code of machines built by Diebold Election Systems and discovered it was very easy to trick the machines into accepting more than one ballot per voter.

The potential for fraud was especially worrisome because there was no independent oversight of the machines and they produced no paper trail in case a recount was needed. Also troubling was the fact that Diebold’s Chief Executive Walden O’Dell, a major Bush fundraiser, announced in 2003 that he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes for the president.” He later expressed regret at his choice of language. [The Plain Dealer, Sept. 16, 2003, posted at Diebold’s Web site.]

But many Democratic voters were reassured by the Election Protection efforts and the Kerry campaign’s pledges that there was a grand strategy in place ready to neutralize dirty Republican tactics as they occurred and battle it out in the courts if the need arose.

Reversal of Fortune

Election Day began on a positive note for Bush’s opponents. Turnout was at record highs, which is traditionally a good sign for the Democrats and for challengers in general.

The level of commitment and participation was apparent to anyone who voted that day. I visited several polling stations in Northern Virginia, and everywhere I went, voters and poll workers told me that the level of participation was unlike anything they had ever seen.

But soon reports started flooding into help centers indicating widespread irregularities. The Election Protection headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, received thousands of complaints by mid-morning. By late afternoon, tens of thousands of complaints had come in from all over the country. 

There were reports of black voters being challenged by Republican lawyers at polling places, of people asked for two forms of identification when only one was needed, and of polling places moved to police stations in minority precincts.

Hundreds of electronic voting malfunctions were called in, and often polling stations lacked enough provisional ballots. Another major problem was related to the long waits voters had to endure due to insufficient numbers of voting machines, disproportionately in poor and minority districts.

In addition to those reports of disenfranchisement, another issue that raised eyebrows was the exit poll discrepancy. Exit polls showed Kerry leading by three percentage points nationwide as well as in nearly all the battleground states, including Florida and Ohio.

But when the official returns came in, the results flipped almost across the board. Bush seized a lead of about three percentage points nationally and six battleground states that had looked to be in Kerry's column went instead to Bush. With all of the irregularities on Election Day, it looked to many like it was another stolen election.

So, the next morning, activists in Tucson, Baltimore, Austin, Chicago, Boston, Madison, and other cities across the country staged demonstrations against vote fraud and disenfranchisement. In Washington, a couple of hundred people marched down major thoroughfares, blocking rush hour traffic and shouting, “They stole the election again!”

Meanwhile, Bush was leading in Ohio and was poised to claim enough electoral votes for victory. But Kerry had not conceded and many Democrats were expecting a drawn-out fight. Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, assured voters that the Democratic ticket would not concede until all the votes were counted.

But a few hours later, Kerry conceded anyway, stating that even with the uncounted provisional ballots in Ohio, he could not get enough votes to carry the state and win the election.

While some welcomed the concession believing that a protracted election battle would be “bad for the country,” it was a devastating blow to the fledgling movement for fair elections. The concession effectively erased any chance of a meaningful remedy to the fraud and disenfranchisement that had occurred. With the election conceded and another four years of Bush all but inevitable, it became very hard to mobilize people or to launch a sustained challenge to the electoral abuses.

Voting Errors

After Kerry’s concession, other stories surfaced that raised suspicions of the paperless electronic voting machines. For example, an error with an electronic voting system in suburban Columbus, Ohio, gave Bush 3,893 extra votes. With only 638 people casting votes in the precinct, Bush received 4,258 votes to John Kerry’s 260.

In a North Carolina county, more than 4,500 votes were lost because officials believed a computer that stored ballots electronically could hold more data than it did.

In several states, there were reports of votes “jumping” on touch-screen computers. Democrats marveled, bitterly, at how many of the examples were votes jumping away from Kerry either to Bush or to third-party candidates. “I filled out my ballot and was shocked when I went to the final screen, and the ballot had voted for the opposite of what I had chosen on every candidate,” a woman in Florida said.

Also, there were remarkable Bush vote tallies, which were not convincingly explained by the conventional wisdom that legions of new voters were outraged by “moral issues” such as gay marriage. In Florida, Bush netted more votes than registered Republicans in 47 out of 67 counties. In 15 of those counties, his vote total more than doubled the number of registered Republicans and in four counties, Bush more than tripled the number. [See Consortiumnews.com's  “Bush’s ‘Incredible’ Vote Tallies.”]

When the unbelievable vote tallies and the discrepancies between the exit polls and the official results were considered, along with electronic voting machine glitches, it looked increasingly possible that fraud was responsible for Bush’s victory and that it was a mistake for Kerry to concede. It seemed far too early to determine the real winner, and premature to have conceded when there were so many irregularities to be investigated.

But the Kerry campaign stayed in the background. It didn't demand a recount or launch a challenge in the courts, or draw on the deep pool of talent it had assembled. It even declined to support the efforts of others who were seeking a recount in Ohio.

Carolyn Betts, an attorney who had worked as an Election Protection volunteer on Nov. 2 and then participated in the Green- and Libertarian-sponsored recount in Ohio, reported in an e-mail to colleagues that she had personally contacted a Kerry attorney and offered to help for free, but had her offer turned down.

Betts said the Democrats had tens of millions of dollars available “to tear apart Ohio and find out exactly where the fraud is and propose a viable alternative.” But they wouldn’t spend any of the money and wouldn’t use the volunteer talent available.

While the Democrats sat on a vast reserve of money and other resources, the Green Party appealed for donations in order to cover the $113,600 filing fee needed to move the recount forward. The party raised $150,000 over the Internet through thousands of small donations, mostly under $100. A Pacifica radio station funded the canvassing of Warren County, where observers had been locked out during the vote-counting on Election Day.

Last-Ditch Rallies

Meanwhile, groups such as ReDefeatBush and the Citizens Alliance for Secure Elections continued to organize demonstrations in support of the recount and against voting fraud. Rallies were held in Ohio, Massachusetts, California and Washington, D.C., often led by the Green and Libertarian presidential candidates, David Cobb and Michael Badnarik. Democratic Party leaders were notable for their absence.

But the protests never were big enough to have any real effect. With no leadership from Kerry, most Democrats accepted the election results and began looking forward to legislative battles and the elections in 2006 and 2008.

When Congress met to certify the Electoral College votes on Jan. 6, Kerry wasn’t even in the country; he was visiting Iraq and other Middle East countries. In an e-mail to supporters, he announced that he would not participate in the congressional challenge of the vote certification for Ohio. Instead, he urged his supporters to keep pushing for election reform by demanding that Republican congressional leaders hold hearings.

On Jan. 6, as the Black Caucus and Barbara Boxer forced a debate on these voting problems, several hundred people protested outside Congress. Some people had come from as far away as Ohio, Florida and California to demonstrate against electoral fraud. One protester I spoke to, who had driven two hours, was disappointed that the protest was not larger.

Cobb, the Green Party presidential candidate who had led the recount battle in Ohio, told the crowd that he hoped he was witnessing the formation of a new coalition of Greens, independents and progressive Democrats.

Cobb's observation may mark another difference between Election 2000 and Election 2004. Four years ago, the progressive opposition to Bush seemed hopelessly fractured after Nader's divisive campaign. At least that rift seems to have healed. Many progressive Democrats expressed gratitude for the role played by the Green Party in 2004.

The larger question remains, however, whether a sizable coalition can take shape to put any meaningful limits on Bush’s assertion of almost unlimited presidential power.

It wasn’t until two days before Bush’s Jan. 20 inauguration that Kerry made a strong statement decrying voter disenfranchisement in which “thousands of people were suppressed in the effort to vote.”

“Voting machines were distributed in uneven ways. In Democratic districts, it took people four, five, 11 hours to vote, while Republicans (went) through in 10 minutes – same voting machines, same process, our America,” Kerry said.

Many Democrats undoubtedly viewed Kerry's statement as a classic case of "too little, too late." When the issue of disenfranchisement could have been drawn in a dramatic way with the election still in the balance, Kerry had listened to his cautious political advisers who urged him to be a gracious loser and protect his "political viability."

But the angry Democratic base saw the election as a matter of life or death, not politics as usual. They feared that Bush would cite his victory as a mandate for his preemptive wars and his legal justification for torture. They worried – correctly as it turned out – that Bush would see himself after the election as beyond accountability.

Back to Home Page