Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Election Day (Arts Engine/PBS, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday I went to the San Diego Public Library for a showing of what turned out to be an uncommonly interesting documentary — a good deal better than I thought it was going to be from the promo — called Election Day, a story of the Presidential election day of November 2, 2004. The overall direction was by Katy Chevigny, though by the very nature of her project — a series of scenes taken on one day in widely varying locations (11 cities, towns and communities across the country — she could be involved in very little of the actual shooting and most of her “directorial” work was in post-production, picking out the most interesting shots and weaving them together in the kind of temporal tapestry she wanted.

The film isn’t hysterical and doesn’t get up on a soapbox screaming fraud about how the election (or American elections in general) was run, but Chevigny — who said in a director’s note on her Web site that when she began editing “I had become inspired by Spencer Overton’s book ‘Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression,’ which illuminates patterns in many of these devilish details that our footage, and now the film, reveals,” she manages to work some of this perspective into her movie. “A former member of the Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform, Spencer Overton explains how seemingly insignificant practices at the local level can control the outcome of elections and weaken the real power of voters.” Chevigny wrote. “As an advisor to Election Day, Spencer screened footage and threw ideas around with us, providing valuable insights into how our footage fit into a larger picture of the election system pressure points that are under scrutiny today.”

We see some fascinating insights into how the election system works — or doesn’t — including an insurgent African-American sheriff’s candidate in Gadsden County, Florida (site of some of the worst abuses in the 2000 election, including 12 percent of all the county’s ballots being rejected as defective) squeaking out a victory by 70 votes over a white-cracker type so perfect they might as well have ordered him from Central Casting; and a reservation in South Dakota where Democratic operatives (though the only way we know they’re Democrats is their literature urges a vote for Tom Daschle) encourage people to vote both in the national election and in their tribal election the same day, and one man says he’s only going to vote in the tribal election because he doesn’t trust anyone in Washington and if they were trustworthy the Native Americans would still own all the Black Hills.

The “star,” to the extent this film has one, is an almost maniacally determined Republican operative in Chicago named Jim Fuchs, who’s leading a squad of observers to pop into polling places and make sure the election is being conducted fairly. He nearly gets a Democratic poll watcher at one precinct arrested for sitting at the same table with the poll workers (apparently illegal under Illinois law) and has a hissy-fit at his own precinct when he becomes convinced that the Votomatic unit he’s been given is defective because his pin-pricker won’t go through to cast his vote for Bush. (One of the election officials later demonstrates that, whatever went wrong with it in Fuchs’ hands, when they do it the unit is working fine.) It's not at all surprising that the credit roll at the end informs us that Fuchs is now running for the Illinois State Senate himself.

Indeed, one genuine surprise in this movie is how, even though the Votomatic system was blamed for the abuses and failures in Florida in 2000 and the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was designed, among other things, to phase them out completely, all but about two of the jurisdictions shown in the film were still using it (and nobody was using those paper-less touch-screens in-person voters had to deal with in this county, which in 2004 were being hailed as the wave of the future and by 2008 had been pretty well discredited).

The most chilling part of the film was hearing Fuchs and one other person — a matronly-looking woman who ran one of the polling places in the fabled “battleground state” of Ohio — describe voting as a “privilege,” not a right. They were quite explicit about this (the woman said she considered it a “privilege” to be a U.S. citizen as well), which was frightening given that the legal definition of a “privilege” is something the government bestows upon you and can take away under whatever circumstances they choose (driving a car is the classic legal example of a “privilege” in this sense), whereas a right is inalienable.

There are also characters such as the Australian (an aborigine? She looks awfully dark and flat-nosed to be white) who’s sent over from an international NGO to observe the balloting in Ohio (and comes away with the impression that the vote was more or less fair but there were things she was concerned about) and the African-American man in New York who’s a convicted felon who’s just completed his parole and is looking forward to voting for his first time in middle age — but whose vote isn’t counted because someone forgot to process his registration. (He’s contrasted to an even older African-American with a felony conviction who’s working as a dishwasher in a restaurant and is pissed that, as is well known, Florida never restores the voting rights of felons unless they make special application to the government and win an elaborate approval process.)

All in all, Election Day is an oddly moving film, sensitive to the power of the ritual of election day (which I somewhat miss since I’ve been voting by mail — it’s easier and surer but somehow the collective coming-together to exercise the franchise has important ritual significance; as Chevigny said in her notes, “Election Day is one of the few days in the United States on which so many Americans are collectively engaged in a common activity” — only, increasingly, they don’t) and managing to get us to care about a surprising number of people given what a wide canvas they’re depicting and what a short running time (84 minutes) they have to depict it.