Reviews

Hacking Democracy (2006)

Jack Patrick Rodgers

This film shows a growing, dangerous mentality in American political and corporate life: the widespread refusal to acknowledge any problem, to accept any responsibility for mistakes made, or to fix any error until a disaster occurs and enrages the public.


Hacking Democracy

Display Artist: Simon Ardizzone, Russell Michaels
Director: Russell Michaels
Cast: Marc Carrel, Bev Harris
Studio: HBO
Distributor: Docurama
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2007-03-27

There’s a temptation to assume that a documentary like Hacking Democracy, about a non-profit organization investigating whether electronic voting machines are responsible for miscounts and stolen elections, is just a liberal conspiracy theory arguing in vain that the 2004 US presidential election (or the 2000 election, for that matter) was manipulated in favor of a Republican outcome. One of the few missteps of the film is that it brings up this subject – and even implies that John Kerry had strong evidence that voter fraud had occurred – and then abruptly drops it. The filmmakers want to use this debate in order to get most of their audience riled up about the need for voting reform, yet they know that focusing too heavily on it would bring about accusations of liberal bias.

But shouldn’t investigating "how" – or frighteningly enough, "if" – the US voting system works be important enough to transcend partisan politics? Beverly Harris, the heroine of the documentary, wisely, I would say, never announces her own political affiliations, and she makes it clear that both Democrats and Republicans have every right to be suspicious of the dangers of electronic voting. She insists that in her home county, it’s the Republicans who are accusing Democrats of fixing the vote. An early vignette shows a frazzled Republican candidate investigating voting machines and discovering that pressing the button for her selects a different name, instead.

But Hacking Democracy isn’t an expose of a single debacle. It’s an indictment of the entire system, zeroing in on the scariest aspect of electronic voting: that even if someone did manage to corrupt the vote, there would be no record left behind to show that anything had been changed. No examination of the results could ever prove that a hacker had taken American democracy for a ride.

Bev Harris, a self-described “grandmother activist” who holds the center of our attention in this documentary, didn’t exactly have a long history of interest in the voting process. When her county purchases an electronic voting machine, Harris decides on a whim to do an online search of related voting glitches. When she comes across numerous stories of suspicious errors and outright horror stories about the machines, she takes matters into her own hands and founds Black Box Voting, a non-profit group dedicated to investigating the accuracy of the electronic voting process. And during this course of action, she becomes an enemy of the Diebold Corporation, makes of the electronic voting machine.

Every good movie – documentary or fictional – that advocates social change seems to require a slimy, all-powerful company as its chief villain, and the suits at Diebold don’t disappoint. Several of its executives are revealed as major contributors to the Republican party, and the CEO of the company even wrote a letter to George W. Bush before the 2004 election ominously promising to “deliver the vote of Ohio” to him. Whenever representatives of Diebold are interviewed, they come off as untrustworthy weasels who converse only in corporate double-speak, insisting that all of the accusations against their technology and ethics are fabrications or in some way irrelevant.

Whether or not Diebold conspired to fix the 2004 election is left unresolved, probably due to a lack of hard evidence (although the film presents plenty of disturbing unanswered questions). Instead, Harris and Hacking Democracy intend to prove that the electronic voting machines are incredibly vulnerable to outside manipulation. It all comes down to one crucial design flaw: do the memory cards for each individual voting machine have executable programming on them, and thus, could be rewritten to corrupt an entire election? Diebold claims that the memory cards are read-only, and that the only way someone could hack into an election would be to alter each machine individually. But Harris hires a few computer specialists who take a look at the memory card’s programming and insist otherwise.

The grand finale is a mock election in which one of the computer geeks that Harris has recruited reprograms the memory card that’s been entrusted to handle everyone’s vote. The salient point isn’t just that the mock election is indeed fixed, but that there’s no evidence left behind to indicate that the votes were ever changed. Even the government official who supervised this demonstration admits, “I would have certified this election as a true and accurate result.”

What finally makes Hacking Democracy so galvanizing is its indictment of a mentality that has taken over just about every sector of American life from politics to corporate ethics: the widespread refusal to acknowledge any problem, to accept any responsibility for mistakes made, or to fix any error until a disaster occurs and enrages the public.

In the face of such duplicity, Harris is the sort of hero we desperately need. When she admits to her fear that she might be sued by Diebold – and that their family is barely making ends meet as is – or we see her sifting through garbage as her sole means of collecting information on Diebold’s financial records (which leads to their connections to the Republican party), we start to understand just what grueling, thankless work it is to do genuine good on the behalf of one’s country. But without activists like Harris or her compatriots watching the watchmen in order to ensure that our system is honest, who among us would know whether our votes counted at all?

The special features for the DVD of Hacking Democracy include 33 minutes of deleted scenes and short biographies of the filmmakers.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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