[2 October 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In a democracy, the right to vote is inalienable. It’s the mechanism by which the power, inherent in the people, is manifest in the make-up of the government. When said right is exercised openly and freely, allowed to function as a direct link between a person and his protector, a seamless sense of sovereignty and security exists. The populace votes with its passions, and the leaders interpret the mandate and move the nation forward. Unlike free speech, assembly, the ability to bear arms or the necessity of an unencumbered press, the right to vote and its application stands as a testament to the treatment of a country to its constituency, and visa versa.
So what does it say about the United States that, up until four decades ago, minorities could not easily express their electoral choice? What does it say about this so-called melting pot of nationalities and belief systems that the majority white powers found deceptive and dishonest ways of keeping black and Latino citizens out of the voting process? Better yet, what does it say that some people still believe an honest effort is being made, even today, to keep said peoples outside the process of determining their own political fate? If you were former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, and documentarian Ian Inaba, the response would be something along the lines of “No shit!”
In American Blackout, new on DVD from those guardians of dissent, the Disinformation Company, Inaba focuses on the 2000 and 2004 Presidential Elections, and the infamy surrounding the vote count (and recount) in Florida and Ohio, respectively. Under his considered theorizing, irregularities occurred in both states, resulting in declarations of victory that were premature and predicated on the notion that many in the minority community were unable to practice their free and unencumbered right to vote. Inaba links the embarrassingly brazen literacy tests of the 1960s with the Republican redistricting in the years post Millennium, and the conclusions drawn are shocking in their suggestion. According to American Blackout, races regularly seen as supporting Democratic candidates were made to suffer through incredible personal hardships just to get to the voting booths (sometimes waiting up to six hours) only to find their names mysteriously missing from the list of eligible citizens.
It all begins in Florida 2000, and the hotly contested battle between then Texas Governor George Bush and Vice President Al Gore. Leading in the popular vote, Gore needed the Sunshine State to secure his electoral vote victory. For Bush, his brother’s domain (Jeb was Florida’s Governor at the time) was the last chance to pull off an upset. When all the posturing and public protest was over, Bush defeated Gore by a margin of a few hundred votes. With the necessary State support, Bush became the first President elected who lost the popular vote. According to Inaba, and his Congressional champion Cynthia McKinney, the current President should have lost the Sunshine State. Thanks to the mismanagement of Secretary of State Katherine Harris (GW’s campaign manager in FLA), nearly 100,000 people of color were wrongfully removed from the voting rolls.
The accusations—which we see more or less confirmed during hotly contested public hearings—are that Florida used a faulty list of “convicted felons” (unable to vote under the State’s Constitution) to remove thousands of names from the list of eligible citizens. Almost all were minorities, therefore, people who would probably vote for a Democratic candidate. Via sloppy bureaucracy and a power-fed sense of infallibility, the State made it impossible for more than 80,000 legally registered individuals to vote and by extrapolation, cost Gore the election.
As stated before, former Congresswomen Cynthia McKinney was a lead opponent of this indefensible position by the State. Conducting her own independent grass roots investigation when the body of which she was a part would do nothing but pat the empowered party on the back, McKinney became a firebrand of controversy, stirring up evidence that was almost impossible to undermine. Had the events of 9/11 never occurred, McKinney may have been viewed, historically, as the politician who saved the sanctity of the electoral process from those who would benefit from its lax application.
But when those planes flew into the World Trade Center, dividing the nation conveniently along ideological lines, McKinney became the scapegoat for a pundit class eager to demonize anyone in dissent. While her no bullspit approach to politics had always served her well (as part of the extras included on the disc, we learn how McKinney’s commoner style became the platform for her rise to political power), her questioning of the government’s pre-attack intelligence was misquoted and misinterpreted. Where once she was battling to make sure all peoples could vote, now she was viewed as a loose canon crackpot who blamed George Bush and the Republicans of a “conspiracy” level involvement in the 9/11 attacks.
November 2, 2004. Voters waiting in the rain to vote, Columbus, Ohio.
American Blackout proves conclusively that this was not the case, that McKinney never made such statements, and paints the media in the mindbending lunatic fringe light in which it still sits today. Instead of reporting the story openly and honestly, we see the 24 hour news channels distilling and distorting the facts to fit the current cultural agenda. In the meantime, in one of the film’s most telling sequences, a Republican election strategist goes on the record to discuss—quite proudly—how he legally rigged McKinney’s reelection bid.
As a Democrat, another term in the House seemed like a simple achievement for the still under fire candidate. But then the GOP sponsored another Democratic candidate, and in the open primary format found in the State of Georgia, they convinced Republicans to cross over and, essentially, vote for someone other than McKinney. She lost the election by an astoundingly wide margin, the loss becoming the opening salvo in what has continued to be an ongoing battle between her constituency and those who view her as dangerous, demented, or just plain out of step with the way in which politics is played in this increasingly corrupt country.
And to make matters worse, the 2004 Presidential Election becomes a replay of four years before, this time with the horrendous lack of available voting booths for minorities playing a role in the determination of our leadership. Just like Florida, we find a Bush supporter in charge of Ohio’s certification of results, and even with Federally mandated safeguards in place, thousands of black and Latino voters are unable to exercise their rights. Lines last for hours in the inner city, while the suburban voters breeze through the process effortless. Documents conclude that, while rolls in the inner city increased by 25 to 27 percent between 2000 and 2004, many of the districts saw the number of voting machines drop by, sometimes, 30 to 40 percent. In essence, in areas the government knew would turn out in record numbers, the ability to vote was decreased by a significant margin.
It’s all too much to believe at times. Inaba doesn’t go for the subtext to this story. He simply lets the facts speak for themselves, without a bit of buffering or support from those who had a hand in their creation. Context can be found in the amazing array of extras—material that fills in missing information (clarification on ancillary players like The Carlyle Group and AIPAC) as well as explains the “plantation” like makeup of the Capital. There is so much open admittance during the investigations (both Congressional and private) that the lack of abject outrage is telling. Inaba argues that America—stunned by the terrorist attacks on its own soil—is not ready to revisit the Civil Rights situations of the ‘60s. The symbolism of angry black faces filling TV screens, arguing over their right to vote is so “been there, done that” for the post-modern populace that even something as substantive as truth can be shuttled aside in the name of jaded jingoism.
In addition, McKinney as a focal point does have its problems —she’s not the subtlest of politicians, and for all the good she’s accrued, there are some fatal missteps left out of the conversation (again, more can be found in the bountiful bonus features). Had Jesse Jackson been the empowered opponent of both 2000 and 2004, perhaps the dialogue would be ongoing, instead of quietly cast aside. The sad thing is that a truly informative film like American Blackout will be vilified as a treatise against democracy and US value, simply because it dares to challenge the status quo in ways reminiscent of a far more volatile time. Truth is, any question in the ability of a citizen to vote should be grounds for immediate governmental outcry. In this case, however, the lack of voices in support of someone like McKinney is all the more deafening.