The Fat Lady Still Isn’t Singing

The mood at Patti Ruben’s MoveOn house party on the third Sunday in November was cheerier than some might expect. Six years after its inception as an opposition movement to Bill Clinton’s impeachment,, the vaunted Internet-based political group that, through its 527 and PAC, fought Bush’s re-election with everything from bake sales to homebrew television ads, had convened a nationwide conference of gatherings, networked via Web site, to collectively assess its future. It was not necessarily an auspicious moment: After a spring, summer and fall of energetic fund-raising, mobilizing and lavish media attention that supposedly had right-wingers quaking in their Nikes, the fearsome MoveOn, like so many newer organizations rising from the Bush-hating masses, had seemed to wither in the face of a perceived referendum on the liberal way of life. But not everyone was buying the mandate: "If a few thousand votes had gone the other way in Ohio," MoveOn executive director Eli Pariser told the house parties’ participants during the Web cast, "the media would all be talking about how brilliant our efforts were."

Make that a couple hundred thousand; at any rate, the question before the house parties was not so much about what went wrong in MoveOn’s campaign, or even how to hold up under four more years of Bush, but what to do about the Democratic Party, an organization so conformist it could not even stand firm to contest a possibly rigged election. Ruben’s was one of some 1,700 parties across the country, most of them concentrated along the coasts and the banks of the Mississippi River. And as her 40-odd guests clustered in front of a fire in an airy Los Feliz mansion, Bush, Cheney and Rove gave way to a new axis of evil: Terry McAuliffe, James Carville and the cursed Bob Shrum, loser adviser to Mondale, Dukakis and Kerry.

"The Democratic Party is hopeless," said the woman sitting next to me on the floor before the tiny iBook from which our leaders beamed their remarks. "We’ve got to take over, get behind that guy from Sierra Club who posted a note on the door of the Democratic headquarters, just like Martin Luther did on the door of the church."

Patti Nicklaus, a writer for the Church of Scientology’s Freedom magazine, which she defined as the place where Oliver Stone got his ideas about JFK, had another hypothesis. "The reason we’re here is because the Republicans rigged the vote," she insisted. "We can’t talk about anything unless we talk about that."

Nicklaus held in her hand a stack of printouts detailing voting anomalies in bar graphs and tables, which Ruben asked her to put away until later in the discussion. "I want people to come in here and feel free to air the issues that have been on their minds," she said. "I don’t want them to be influenced yet." Nicklaus graciously complied, but she didn’t give up. By the time in the afternoon when each participant chose a single most-pressing issue to expound on, Nicklaus, invoking Bev Harris of Black Box Voting as her patron saint, had her pitch down cold. "Think of it this way," she said. "You’re a farmer, and you’re doing everything right — watering, fertilizing, using the right pesticides — but you keep losing. Your crops are disappearing. And until you find the band of thieves stealing from your fields, you’re not going to get your farm back."

It was not, as it turned out, an unpopular argument. At the end of the afternoon’s 50-minute house-party discussion, Pariser came back online to poll the partygoers on their opinions. Of all the issues offered in the discussion — the environment, federal judicial appointees, third-party politics — none came close to rivaling election reform as the matter most on people’s minds. Whatever anyone thought of Nicklaus’ single-minded fervor, the final tally was on her side. Election reform won the vote at Ruben’s house, and prevailed across the country, said Pariser, "by a landslide."

THINGS SOUNDED MUCH THE SAME a few weeks ago when, in the days after the election, I called around to the various groups borne as much of Bushphobia as Kerryphilia and found everyone from ReDefeat Bush founder David Lytel in Washington, D.C., to the local Kerry grassroots club preoccupied with exit-poll numbers. Only Democracy for America (DFA), Governor Howard Dean’s alternative to the Democratic Party machine, had even considered moving on. "We got many, many people elected this year," boasted Laura Gross, the fast-talking, upbeat communications director of the Dean PAC. "Half of them were first-time candidates, and they won at all levels, from the state Legislature in Hawaii to the water-conservation board in Florida." Gross made no mention of Election Day irregularities; she focused on the Dean team’s victories.

"We had people elected in the so-called red states everywhere from Utah to Idaho," Gross said. "The mayor of Salt Lake County, Peter Corroon, is a Democrat. We supported 13 men and 19 women, seven African-Americans, one Latino, one Asian, two gay and lesbian. Ten of them defeated incumbent Republicans." Northeast Philadelphia sent a "Dean Dozen" Democrat, Allyson Schwartz, to the U.S. House of Representatives, and Julia Boseman won the state senate race in North Carolina’s 9th District. Montana elected a Democratic governor; Portland, a liberal mayor.

"Even in an off year there’s going to be elections like these that we need to focus on," Gross said. "There are city and local races coming up this January. "Enough with the woe-is-me attitude."

Gross’ optimism is refreshing. Judging by the discussion boards on the DFA Web site, however, it is still not shared by many of her organization’s followers and contributors, many of whom pine for the moment when the Iowa screamer himself will take up the cause of voter fraud (although, as one poster remarked, if he ever does, he should avoid the word fraud and opt instead for the more reasonable irregularities.).

"It’s just not really over for a number of people," says Lytel, who plans to speak this Saturday with the Reverend Jesse Jackson and reporter Greg Palast at a rally in Columbus, Ohio. "There are twice as many Americans who don’t believe Bush was legitimately elected president as there are Ukrainians who don’t believe Viktor Yanukovich won his election fairly." Lytel cites a recent Harris Poll that found that 38 percent of Democrats and 37 percent of people with no specific party identity believe there were "some" or "many" attempts at unlawful vote suppression. That works out, he concludes, to 18 million Democrats and 12 million independents — roughly 30 million people. For context, the total population of Ukraine is around 37 million.

So why aren’t we in the U.S. marching in the street by the hundreds of thousands, as they are in the Ukraine? "Because Americans still continue to see Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather and Peter Jennings as hardworking journalists presenting the facts," says Lytel, "when in fact they’re the faces representing Viacom, General Electric and Disney. And the tools used to fix the election were much more subtle here."

Not to mention harder to expose. Dr. Steven Freeman of the University of Pennsylvania has published a report, "The Unexplained Exit Poll Discrepancy," arguing that it’s statistically impossible that every discrepancy between exit-poll numbers and official results in battleground states benefited Bush, but accusing no one in particular of actual wrongdoing. In recent days, an investigative reporter named Wayne Madsen has written two stories claiming that the Bush campaign relied on $29 million in Saudi money to orchestrate a widespread machine-hacking operation. Lytel calls him "a credible investigative journalist," but acknowledges that "If you’re going to bring down the government, you need a named source." Nevertheless, strong evidence has begun to emerge from certain counties of voter intimidation and lost-and-found ballots affecting the outcomes of local elections. Ironically, it’s not coming from conspiracy theorists or revolutionary 527s, but from the hidebound Democratic Party.

In Westchester County, New York, state Democratic Party officials, fearing a close and muddy fight, obtained a court order in advance of the 2004 state Senate race to have all machines and ballots impounded by local law enforcement until a public recount could be completed. On election night, the initial tally showed Democrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins running 1,674 votes behind 26-year incumbent Republican Nick Spano; a week later, a re-canvass put Stewart-Cousins only nine votes behind Spano. At the moment, independent observers are still holding each ballot to the light as the media look on; Republican officials are still challenging ballots they don’t consider valid. As Stewart-Cousins would be the first African-American elected from the largely white county to the New York state Senate, the challenges, according to Jonathan Rosen of the New York Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, have been particularly fierce in heavily African-American districts. Republicans have also systematically challenged voters in housing projects and fought emergency ballots cast in the wrong district — a phenomenon for which Rosen blames his opponents’ widespread misinformation campaign.

"This is about progressives getting tough and being pre-emptive," Rosen says. "The Republican Party runs an aggressive disenfranchisement effort around this country for one reason: because they can. Because we don’t challenge them. Because progressives don’t like the message that might makes right, that you have to fight hard to protect your voting rights. We lost the Florida recount in 2000 in that way. But we’ve now made a decision to never let that happen again.

"I don’t think I’ll ever run another campaign without going to court to get an impoundment order before Election Day," Rosen declares. He claims that the Democratic Party nationwide ran what he calls "an amazing ballot-security operation" whose results have only begun to trickle in, and when their findings are revealed, they won’t need complex spreadsheets or shady stories of foreign financiers. "When the state of Ohio chooses not to put enough machines in their polling places in Cuyahoga County so that people have to stand in line in the rain until they give up and go home, that’s voter fraud," says Rosen.

As of this writing, Stewart-Cousins is 109 votes behind Spano with a few thousand ballots left to count.

Stewart-Cousins was a "Dean Dozen" candidate, sponsored and endorsed by Democracy for America. Accordingly, Rosen’s update on the state Senate battle was posted to the DFA Web site on Monday, eliciting more than 200 comments, many invoking voter fraud. "I just donated $10 to the Andrea Stewart voter defense fund," wrote one participant. "And I would even give more if DFA sponsored a fund to investigate election fraud in Ohio and Florida."

Now that even the Government Accountability Office has agreed to investigate Election Day troubles, Lytel hopes the media he calls corporate might start to take the issue more seriously. Maybe even a senator or two will "stand up this time on January 6 — the day Congress meets to cast the electoral votes — and say, ‘Okay, tell us why you think the votes weren’t cast legitimately?’ and we’ll finally get to give our 57 reasons why we think the election was rigged."

If nothing else works, there’s always January 20, 2005. Several organizations are making plans to send buses full of protesters to the inauguration; the day has even inspired a whole, new anti-Bush grassroots effort: Turn Your Back on Bush. "We don’t need banners, we don’t need signs, we just need people," says the Web site "We’re calling on people to attend inauguration as they are: members of the public. Once through security and at the procession, at a given signal, we’ll all turn our backs on Bush."

On the same day, Lytel will throw the largest "counterinaugural ball" in history at an as-yet-undisclosed D.C. location. "ReDefeat Bush will be reborn that night," he says. "Bigger and better than ever."


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