In Stealing America: Vote by Vote, director Dorothy Fadiman does a fine job outlining the ways in which the integrity of the United States electoral process is repeatedly undermined by fraud, de facto disenfranchisement and the concerted efforts of corrupt politicos to draw on any available means to ensure the successful campaign of their candidate; where she runs into trouble is in trying to pose solutions. Focusing on the 2004 presidential election and particularly the hotly contested Ohio vote, Fadiman situates that contest within a long tradition of voter manipulation that stretches from the terrorist tactics used to intimidate black voters in the Reconstruction South to the questionable maneuvering that won JFK the Illinois vote in 1960.
In the 2004 elections, the principal strategy employed by Republican officials involved programming the electronic voting machines to automatically switch a certain number of voter’s ballots from Kerry to Bush, while ensuring that they escaped detection thanks to the impossibility of auditing the machines (unlike hand ballots, the electronic devices leave no paper trail). Fadiman places much of the blame for this successful perpetration of voter fraud on the national media who remained unwilling to acknowledge the obvious logical loopholes that quickly came to light on election day, even as the large discrepancies between the exit polls and the vote tally was seemingly too great to ignore (as a curt CNN reporter puts it, with a summary dismissal, “Sometimes these things happen”).
So what can be done in the face of such media indifference? Fadiman details several grassroots movements that agitate on behalf of voting reform; as a representative success story, she posits a New Mexico organization that successfully lobbied to eliminate electronic voting in that state’s contests. But as Fadiman’s historical contextualizing reminds us, those who wish to manipulate the process for their own benefit will always find ways to do so. The 2000 election turned on a series of paper ballots in Florida; when it was clear that they would not achieve the result desired by the state government, they were simply thrown out.
The question in the end is not so much an issue of paper versus electronic processes, but a more deep-seated corruption that requires increasing radical solutions to root out. Fadiman ends her film with an optimistic call to arms, narrated over a fatuous montage of such iconic “American” images as the Lincoln Memorial and the Constitution, but for all this patriotic audio/visual rhetoric, what she’s really achieved throughout the course of her film is to spell out the fundamental rottenness of a system that no amount of superadded good will can gloss over.