The Recount: Civil Rights Issues
Almost forty years after that watershed event, it is a national tragedy that so many Americans, and particularly minorities and people of lesser means, were disproportionately denied their chance to vote and have their vote counted fairly in the 2004 election. Why are there proportionately less voting machines in poorer precincts? Why are the oldest voting machines, with the greatest chance of breaking down, more frequently in precincts where people with less means are living? Why do so many of us sit by silently when we hear about voter lines that last up to ten hours in some places, effectively denying the right to vote to people who must get to work, take care of children, or go to classes?
When civil rights advocates first tried to march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery to highlight the plight of African Americans in Alabama, they were brutally attacked and forced to return to Selma. Two weeks later, after national attention had brought the systematic civil rights deprivations into the open, a broad coalition of community groups, church groups, labor groups, student groups, and supporters from across the nation successfully completed the march to Montgomery. Five months later, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, helping to safeguard the vote for African Americans and all Americans.
The Recount: Bearing Witness
Here in Ohio, there are some people who are saying that the votes have been counted and that it is time to move on. Others are saying that the cost of a recount is too high, and that dollars should be saved by not performing a recount.
Unfortunately, to move on without making sure that every vote was counted and every failure of the system was documented would be a crime against the spirit of democracy. We did that already in 2000, and look what happened. The courts forced the recount in Florida to stop, and it was only months later (right after the September 11 attacks, so few were listening)that recounters hired by major news organizations found that if all the valid, machine-rejected votes had been counted, the man occupying the White House would have lost the election (SOURCES: 1 [SEE TABLE 1]; 2; 3).
Just like the brave Americans who marched to Montgomery in 1965 and the thousands of others who fought to guarantee the right to vote in other ways over the years, we must bear witness and raise our voices when the vote of even one of us is not given its full measure of respect and meaning. To do otherwise is to breach our contract with those who spilled their blood watering the tree of liberty.
This recount may or may not change the outcome of the presidential election. It is certain, however, to help us document the ways the system failed, and to help us to plan for future votes that will be better organized and better implemented. Once we have had an honest and open reckoning of the ways we can do better next time, each of us, no matter which candidate we supported in 2004, will have renewed faith in the system. And that faith in the fairness of the vote is a necessity precondition for the future of a robust, healthy democracy.
For more information about the Selma to Montgomery March, see "We Shall Overcome," an online tour of places important to the 1960s civil rights movement that is maintained by the National Park Service.