July 17, 2005

Root Out the Evil

In Kathleen Parker’s Sunday (7/17/05) column in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “Modern Muslims must root out the evil”, Ms. Parker asserts that “moderate Muslims must be unrelenting in eliminating - not just condemning - Islam’s bad actors.” If that is so, then it also follows that Americans must be unrelenting in eliminating our own bad actors. Of course, our bad actors don’t support suicide bombers. They don’t have to because they have airplanes to drop the bombs, but the civilians are just as dead and their friends and families are just as grief-stricken. Whether they were killed by a stray bomb, or by a scared American soldier pulling the trigger a little too quickly at a checkpoint, or indeed by punitive sanctions during the 90s that never hurt Saddam Hussein but denied food, medicine and safe drinking water to the Iraqi population, far more innocent people have been killed by the US government than by terrorists.

You may argue that this is war and different standards apply. If so it is a war that was never declared. Congressional authorization was based on deliberate lies by an Administration that was determined, as the Downing Street Memo tells us, to make the intelligence fit the predetermined policy. The President’s justification for the war has changed with the political climate. Whether he is fighting to eliminate WMDs or to bring democracy to the Middle East or to “fight the terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them here”, it doesn’t hold water.

If the US is fighting a war, then it follows that its enemies are also fighting a war. Al Quaida issued a declaration of war against the United States several years ago and they refer to their attacks as military operations. I don’t have any special insight into their thoughts but perhaps they see their attacks as similar to, on a much smaller scale, the strategic bombing of English, German and Japanese cities in WWII by all sides. In that case, civilians were seen as participants because of their support for their government’s war effort and the hope was that civilian casualties would undermine that support.

According to this morning’s paper, 1,763 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq. Thousands more have been injured and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed and injured. The occupation is widely hated and is used as a justification for continued insurgent attacks. The situation continues to deteriorate. Those who hope for a civil war are winning the battle. One can’t help but think that the American occupation is making things worse. Surely there must be an alternative but George Bush’s insistence that he cannot possibly have been wrong in any way stands in the way of finding a way out. Most Americans agree that the war was a mistake. Many have come to the conclusion that the road to peace starts with American withdrawal. That will undercut the appeal of the insurgency and open the door to negotiation among Iraqis. Perhaps peacekeepers can be recruited from other Arab countries as a transitional measure. One thing is certain. It is time to bring our troops home.

Those of us who believe this have an obligation not just to condemn this war but to act to end it. Letters and phone calls to our Senators and Congressional Representatives may prod them to action. Talking to our friends and writing letters to the editor can get more people involved. Join an organization working for peace. Demonstrate.
Go to Washington, DC for the September 24-26 massive mobilization against the war.

Bring the Troops Home.

February 11, 2005

Same Day Voter Registration Can Boost Participation

Voter turnout in the United States is among the lowest in the world. When people don't participate in the system, they tend to have less confidence in the political decisions that result.

Restrictive voter registration requirements make it difficult for many to vote. As usual, poor people have a harder time of it. Poor people tend to have less stable living arrangements and may have to move more often. Actually, anybody who moves is going to have a lot going on in their lives. Updating their voter registration may not be their top priority.

There have been efforts to simplify the process. Motor Voter laws that allow you to register to vote when you get a driver's license are one example. Mail in registration is another. Voting by mail works for many people.

Most states cut off voter registration about a month before the election. This is so the election department has time to compile and print up comprehensive lists ready to use on election day. But, this is just when things are getting interesting and new voters are most motivated to get involved. In Washington, mail in registrations have that 30 day cut off but a voter can register in person at their county auditor's office for another two weeks. Curiously, I was told at my local Auditor's office that a completed form from a voter registration drive turned in to the auditor by anyone other than the voter was considered a mail in registration and did not qualify for the extra time even though they had it in hand. I never did understand why it made a difference who handed the form over the counter. Certainly it is confusing and disappointing to a citizen who finally gets motivated to vote, only to be told that they missed the deadline.

Currently six states (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Idaho and 3 others) get around this problem by allowing election day registration. North Dakota abolished voter registration altogether 50 years ago. These states show higher rates of voter participation than the rest of the country. An analysis of voting trends from 1996-2000 showed the greatest increase in turnout in the states that have same day registration. When a 2002 Harris poll asked what would help get them to the polls, non-voters ranked same day registration at the top of the list.

Objectors to same day registration claim that it would promote voter fraud, but this has not been borne out by the experience of those states that use it. Voters are required to sign an affidavit that they are qualified to vote and show proof of identity and residence. This is basically the same as for advance registration. If there are concerns about somebody voting twice, same day registrants can be given a provisional ballot that will be counted after a cross-check of records show that there is no duplication. In fact, a better system for checking on eligibility could actually reduce fraud. Perhaps we could look towards Afghanistan and Iraq and use the finger dipped in indelible ink system to prevent double voting.

Following North Dakota's lead and abolishing voter registration would save the money currently spent on maintaining those records. Since it would also require each voter to show their current residence when they vote, it would automatically eliminate the problem of people neglecting to update their registration.

With voter confidence in the integrity of our electoral processes waning and budget shortfalls challenging us to find more efficient ways to operate our local governments, now is a great time to look into some form of same day voter registration.

February 04, 2005

Election Reform is Urgent

The irregularities, machine failures, paperless ballots,
disenfranchisement, lack of transparency, and a host of other issues in
the 2000 and 2004 elections underscore an electoral crisis that needs to
be fixed right away. Americans are losing confidence in the integrity of
our electoral system, and with good reason.

The Washington recount taught us some important lessons. First of all,
counties that used black box electronic voting machines had no way to
recount or validate their vote totals. We have to take their results on
faith. At the very least, machines should produce paper ballots for a
manual recount and for routine audits of results. It is extremely
disturbing to see proposed legislation (HB-1025) moving the deadline for
requiring electronic voting machines to produce a paper record of all
votes back from 2006 to 2007. Furthermore, this legislation would permit
the substitution of auditing software for an actual paper ballot. This
approach makes the problem worse, not better. What we need instead are
machines that produce paper ballots and a system to routinely audit the
results by comparing the machine results to the paper ballots in
randomly selected areas. If there is a significant difference, then more
investigation will be required, up to a full manual recount.

These machines are also lacking in security measures. A credit card
transaction on the internet is protected much better than our voting
machines. Voting machines are in many cases connected by modem.
Experienced hackers could obtain access by calling the modem. A small
group of hackers, or a single individual could alter the results in
hundreds of locations by as many votes as they thought they could get
away with. We donít know if this has actually happened but if it did, we
might never find out.

Second, there are counties still using punch cards. Punch cards are
notoriously prone to error. Voters have a hard time verifying that they
actually voted the way they intended. Hand counted paper ballots used to
be used everywhere and provide the greatest confidence in the integrity
of the system. Optical scan ballots are easy to mark and easy to read.
Voters can verify that they didnít make any mistakes before they turn in
their ballot and they can be easily recounted if necessary. Of course,
as with any voting system, there ought to be a routine audit as part of
the certification process to make sure that the count is accurate.
Machines are limited in their ability to interpret votes that any person
would understand instantly. For instance, a voter unfamiliar with
optical scan might circle their choice rather than fill in the little
blip or a punch card machine might leave a hanging or a pregnant chad.
The right to vote should not be denied due to a computerís limitations.

Third, there ought to be a guarantee that absentee ballots and
provisional ballots are actually counted. We saw during the recount that
these ballots are treated very differently in different counties. No
registration or vote should be disqualified without notifying the voter
of the problem and giving them an opportunity to correct the problem.
Provisional ballots were intended to insure that all voters will have a
opportunity to vote and have that vote counted. When a provisional
ballot is needed, it should trigger an investigation of what went wrong,
so that voting and registration procedures can be improved.

We call ourselves the greatest democracy in the world. We owe our
country no less than to make it so.

(Dan Goldstein lives in Port Townsend and is a member of Concerned
Voters of Jefferson County)

(Originally published as an Op-Ed in the Seattle Post Intelligencer)