Sunday, October 26, 2008

The embers of Jim Crow


In every country where votes are counted, even a pissant little island like this one, some votes are fraudulent. For some reason, the Liberal Democrats seem to produce people with a knack for this vocation as far as the UK goes. It is a serious problem, but hardly a defining national issue. In the US, alleged voter fraud has become the basis for a Republican attempt to deny citizens the right to vote. Predictably, these efforts overwhelmingly target black voters, and low income voters in general. Despite the fact that absolutely zero evidence of serious fraud has emerged, between 2004 and 2006 13 million people were scrubbed from the electoral rolls in 39 states and the District of Colombia. Part of this uses legislation preventing convicted felons from voting which, because of the racism structural to America's criminal justice system, and the tightening of penalties over the last thirty years (Clinton's "three strikes and you're out" laws come to mind), disproportionately effects African Americans. But, as the linked report finds, much of the purging is strictly illegal. For example: "In Mississippi earlier this year, a local election official discovered that another official had wrongly purged 10,000 voters from her home computer just a week before the presidential primary." Ten thousand voters, one week. That sort of work needs to get paid.

The recent report by Greg Palast and Robert F Kennedy Jr. for the Rolling Stone finds that in the run up to the 2004 elections, 1.1m people were denied the vote under a banned scheme known as "caging" - the local Republicans sent letters to addresses in poor neighbourhoods inviting them to confirm their address. A failure to reply for whatever reason would result in a challenge at the voting booths for providing a false address. Since then over 2.7m voters have been purged from voter rolls under new procedures signed into law by the Bush executive. In the swing-state of Colorado, the rate of scrubbing by or at the behest of GOP officials is ten times the national average. Hundreds of thousands of voters in a number of key states are affected if the details on their identification fails to match exactly those on the state's official records. Even a commonplace typo will get you purged from the rolls - and, as Gary Younge reports, in places like Wisconsin this affects one in five voters. And, of course, you have to possess a government-approved ID in the first place - a passport or a driving license, which many poor voters don't have. A number of reports separate from this now indicate that voting machines are regularly switching early votes from Democrat to Republican. So, even if you get past all the hurdles they set for you, the machines might still get you.

It is a truism among pollsters that Obama's lead, however large it is - and it has seen double figures from time to time - is misleading for the purposes of predicting the election results. Once distilled to 'likely voters' it is reduced quite dramatically, sometimes to within the margin of error. Part of the reason for this is the contempt that the US political class expresses for even the slender facade of representative democracy that the system tolerates. People complain that large numbers of working class voters abstain from elections in the US and thus guarantee disproportionate domination for right-wing politicians. In the past it might have been answered that since none of the major candidates chose to represent the working class, the working class had every reason not to vote. But there are now efforts to actively disenfranchise voters, and it isn't just a partisan process by hardened, power-hungry Republican scum. The efforts, led by the GOP but often mandated by the Democrats, are surely indicative of a desire by substantial elements of the US ruling class to force through a much more extreme programme than the population can tolerate. I am not saying that Jack Abramoff carries suitcases full of cash from the offices of Goldman Sachs to local GOP officials and tells them to get rigging. I am saying that the Republican leadership is in lockstep with some of the most powerful sectors of US capital, particularly finance capital, that they effectively express its priorities, and that when they engage in aggression against the existing legislative, judicial and executive framework, they are doing so for the purposes of fulfilling those priorities.

The vertex of this programme is the goal of privatizing social security. In most advanced capitalist states, this - the public pensions system - is the holy grail for neoliberals and privatizers. It is the largest single component of any welfare state, and the capitalist class wants it bad. The model is Chile, where - thanks to those magnificant Chicago Boys and their pet dictator - the system is entirely managed by the private sector, and funded by compulsory employee contributions. It is highly regressive and leaves those out of work without a pension scheme. It has been such a grotesque failure that the political elite is doing everything it can to shore up the system short of nationalisation - while in Argentina, nationalisation has already been effected. From the perspective of elites, however, the system was a dramatic success story, and it stands as an 'inspiration' for neoliberals everywhere. Bush has often expressed his regard for the Chilean way of slow, penurious death. Investigating the matter for New Labour, Peter Mandelson found that he too adored the system. One significant difference between Obama and McCain is that, for now, the former is committed to opposing social security privatization, while McCain is still blustering about an unfunded baby-boomer "time-bomb". Obama will, should he win by enough votes to negate the fraud, probably come under immense pressure from his backers to recant on his election pledge. But just in case he doesn't listen, it will be useful for them to have as high a representation of the GOP ultras in all branches of government as possible. A remaining mystery, albeit a superficial one, is why the Democratic leadership doesn't defend itself more aggressively against the GOP. They are not exactly wilting violets. Third Party candidates who have faced Democratic efforts to prevent them from standing and organising know how thuggish the party can be. Yet, despite flagrant fraud being exposed time and again, they have played ball. The only plausible answer, as far as I can see, is that they want to govern as centrists. They do not want to be outflanked to the left, and they don't want to mobilise a Left whom they habitually engage in aggression against. They would prefer a strong GOP, and to have a debate limited to one between moderate Republicanism and hard right Republicanism. If the rumours of a landslide victory for Obama and the Democrats are accurate, the DLC crowd actually stand to lose something from that - namely, their alibi in pursuing a centre-right programme. That is why the election of America's first black president may be marred, if not successfully obstructed, by a voting system that reproduces some of the most obnoxious features of Jim Crow.