When I hear the fear of first-time voters like 21-year-old Bertha Barrios, I hear the voice of a generation raised beneath the specter of questions about our last two elections.
"This is my first presidential vote," says Bertha, a Salvadoran American college student who was holding her 2-year-old son, Joshua, while we spoke. "But, sometimes, I don't feel like voting. Last time, a lot of people voted and it was for nothing. Bush wasn't supposed to win [in 2000]. I remember the whole Florida vote scandal ... They stole that election and the news reports make it seem like they want to do it again."
Harkening back to the stories she's heard about elections held under the military dictatorship that ruled El Salvador in the 1980s, she said: "In El Salvador, the right wing somehow would miraculously always win, and that seems like what they want to do here.
"So, what's the point of voting if it really doesn't count at the end?" she asks, her voice taking on the tough tones of her Salvadoran-Watts accent.
I was at once startled and pleased at the healthy and unhealthy dose of cynical wisdom I heard coming from someone I'd known since she was an 11 year-old soccer dynamo. Her pointed question and comparison turned what was supposed to be my reported piece about youth fears of fraud and suppression into an opinion piece about something many of us are feeling increasing urgency about: the serious possibility that the presidential election may be stolen - and what to do before and (if necessary) after the election is stolen.
Recent polls showing a possible Obama landslide give Bertha and other voters some confidence. Me too. According to New York University media studies scholar Mark Crispin Miller - who is teaching a course this semester called "How to Steal an Election" - it's harder to steal elections if there's not a tight race.
But the flurry of reports coming out about numerous irregularities already seen in and around voting booths across the country leave open the possibility that millions of votes may not be counted in this presidential election. And John McCain and the GOP's repeated attacks on voter-registration organization ACORN as a group that is "destroying the fabric of democracy," seem to indicate that the diversionary BIG LIE required to cover-up and legitimate the illegitimate is in place.
A report in the New York Times found that in some states, including battleground states, for every new voter registered two other voters have been removed. Colorado, a state experiencing rapid and huge population increases, has seen more than 100,000 voters erased from its rolls. Reports from other states of suppression and fraud involving computerized voting systems, voter purges, unreasonable demands for voter documentation and other methods mean one thing: all of us must prepare to prevent and fight this.
Failure to fight voter suppression and fraud means more than just another lost election; it means that Bertha's and other future generations may give in to the political resignation that the Salvadorization of our political system portends. And, so, given that the third strike of a questionable election will essentially institutionalize suppression and fraud, given that our inaction will communicate that we as a people are willing to accept whatever powerful interests impose on us, here are some things we must start planning--and doing--immediately:
1. Push for Major Turnout and Deliver a Historic Blowout: Experts say that large turnouts and a wide margin between candidates make fraud and suppression more difficult because of the number of votes that must be manipulated and erased. Large turnout and overwhelming victories also communicate to big political and economic interests our passionate desire to change our political system, including our maligned electoral process.
2. Monitoring on the Day of the Elections: Don't just take your vote to the polls, take your cameras, notepads and cell phones so that you can document and report any irregularities you experience or see. Local and national election monitoring groups like Election Protection (1-866-OUR-VOTE), the country's largest election monitoring operation, have set up systems for anyone to report irregularities.
3. Study Florida 2000 and Ohio 2004: Studying the irregularities of and responses to these two elections provide us with the best case studies of what to look for and, if necessary, how not to respond (i.e., just sit back and watch the election get stolen your TV set).
While we must work unceasingly to make sure that as many people as possible vote and that these votes are counted, we must also prepare for the possibility that irregularities seen in 2000 and 2004 (and already this year) will rear their ugly heads. Failure among all but a few of us to contest and protest the questionable results in 2000 communicated our willingness to accept not just stolen elections, but also anti-democratic behavior in the Executive Branch: the legitimation of torture, corporate and government secrecy coupled with decreased privacy and rights among the citizenry, the militarism in Iraq and, increasingly, within the borders of the country.
Given that we live in an era fraught with threats to democracy, we must, unfortunately, also prepare for the worst by responding with:
1. General Strike: History teaches us that nothing strikes fear into the hearts - and pocketbooks - of the powerful like people stopping business as usual. In the event of a stolen election, local and national work stoppages, school walkouts, protests, and other actions communicate to the government, to corporate interests, to Bertha and to the world that we will fight the decimation of democracy. If they haven't already, labor unions, political organizers, bloggers and individuals should coordinate a global effort so that business stops, not just in the U.S., but also around the world. Even without a strong labor movement, the immigrant rights mobilization of 2006 - the largest simultaneous marches in U.S. history - proved that you can make a powerful statement simply by not showing up to work and marching instead.
2. Study the Florida Experience and Learn: We should study how, with a few notable exceptions, the Democrats allowed themselves - and our political future - to be dragged into the abyss of illegitimacy.
3. Foment Any and All Non-Violent Action: - As our country starts taking on the economic and political characteristics of El Salvador and other "Third World" countries that protested U.S. policy, our colossal crisis means we may have to start emulating their methods of protesting electoral and malfeasance: vigils, protests, hunger strikes, office takeovers (ie; government buildings), boycotts and other non-violent means.
Viewed from the historical perspective running from 2000 to the present - the view of Bertha Barrios' generation - this election may, indeed, actually fit that clichéd slogan about this being the "most important election of our lives" not because we may elect Barack Obama, but because we must restore some semblance of integrity to our political process- and to ourselves.