September 1, 2008

Steal This Vote! Behind the Curtain of American Elections

From Dorothy Fadiman's 'Stealing America Vote by Vote'. Courtesy of Concetric Media

Everyone I know lugs around a low-grade dread about the upcoming presidential election. Many Democrats (as well as a surprising number of non-partisans and Republicans) stoically retain the knowledge that something terrible happened during the 2000 and 2004 elections-But what, exactly? How can it be righted? And who's going to do it?

As increasingly they are wont to do, documentary filmmakers rush in where the media fears to tread. Documentary spoke to two directors and an executive producer of two of the most prominent efforts: Stealing America Vote by Vote (Dorothy Fadiman, dir.; Mitchell Block, exec. prod.), released theatrically last month and continuing a nationwide rollout in September, with the DVD scheduled to be released in October (www.stealingamericathemovie.org/); and Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections (David Earnhardt, dir.), which has been screening at festivals and universities since January, and whose DVD is available through www.uncountedthemovie.com/.

As frustrating and enraging as the revelations in these films are, fortunately, they also provide specific and practical plans of action for individuals and activist groups to increase vigilance and ensure election integrity. For, as Earnhardt, Fadiman and Block concur, it's all about grassroots organization.

After the 2004 presidential election and the first comprehensive use of electronic voting machines, Earnhardt, a Nashville-based filmmaker, set out to unravel the mystery of why the election results were inconsistent with the exit polls. After three years of hearing "the election was stolen," he said, "I wanted to find out how it was done." Three years later, the answer is Uncounted, which systematically catalogs "the myriad of different ways the election was manipulated. It's never just one thing," Earnhardt says. He has "linked the dots" of information seemingly randomly gathered by the media. The film makes a compelling case for election fraud by examining in-depth issues such as exit poll discrepancies, systematic purging of voters, suppression of African-American voters, the fallibility of electronic voting, et al.

In addition to fine production values and a powerful investigative journalism approach, Uncounted tackles the two voting machine companies--ES&S and Diebold--that electronically counted 80 percent of the votes in the 2004 presidential election. Both private, for-profit companies have extensive ties to the Republican Party. But, while Diebold's primary business is manufacturing ATM machines, which provide a paper receipt for transactions and has an audit trail, its voter machines have neither.

But Earnhardt's perspective extends beyond the recent election debacles: "Over the 230 years of this country's past, [election manipulation] has been done both ways [by Republicans and Democrats]. But in recent years, it's been in one direction, favoring Republicans."

On this thrust, Dorothy Fadiman's Stealing America, which highlights many of the same points and talking heads, adds an enlightening piece of information as expressed by Lynn Landes, journalist/political scientist and former BBC correspondent: "Even though the Republicans seem to control the voting technology and the corporations that count the votes, the Democrats have not exhibited a keen interest in addressing the situation."
Stealing America hopes to appeal to a large college-age audience, and the filmmakers have all but insured the film's popularity with these first-time voters by including segments from the zeitgeist conscience and mouthpiece: The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Stealing bends over backwards to communicate a non-partisan viewpoint by including interviews with "the bad guys"--people who unashamedly admit to redirecting an election that favored George Bush over John Kerry--and "would/will do it again."

With regard to documentaries, one of the most hotly discussed topics these days speculates about how much "good" they do, if their only audience is the "choir." Earnhardt's "grassroots approach" has included traveling to 36 cities since mid-January, where he rents out theaters and screens the film for local integrity voter groups, and moderates lively after-film discussions. Their alliance provides the groups a "platform" and a means of then continuing to share the information on their own, a DVD of Uncounted in hand. Earnhardt calls this a "non-traditional approach, with a geometric factor." For example, earlier this spring, 203 "house parties" were organized in 23 states and the District of Columbia.

In addition to the public events in theaters, churches, community centers and even individual house parties, blogs are providing a great deal of notice and "buzz" about both the film and the topic of election fraud. And the film's website, www.uncountedthemovie.com, provides ideas of actions people can take. The DVD is selling far beyond expectations and, through the website alone, has sold units to people in 20 countries as well as in every state. Eranhardt also gives credit to bloggers, who, he says, have significantly helped spread awareness of election issues. He's now taking "a more retail market approach" by aligning with the distributor Disinformation Company and making the DVD available through both Amazon and Netflix.

Earnhardt's approach has worked and he admits that the process has "affirmed my belief in the power of what one person can do. When things change, it usually starts with one person and evolves into citizen activism. Then the leadership has to listen." But the "number one defense," he advises, is to vote: "If you don't vote, it definitely won't be counted."

Dorothy Fadiman, director, and Mitchell Block, executive producer, of Stealing America decided to approach the distribution issue through a "vision of college campuses." As such, they have set up 1,000 screenings on campuses across the nation. There are two primary reasons for this, as Fadiman points out: to inform and educate ("It's important to give college students a perspective on history") and to increase the number of voters, "so the results are clearer. There's a generation coming up that is not registered. The only way to head off a suspicious election before the votes are certified is to have a large lead going in." Because younger voters tend to vote more liberally, she worries that her motivation may not necessarily be "a nonpartisan act." But she and Block both stress the importance of "reaching out to people in a nonpartisan way to make them aware of voting issues." As Block puts it, "It's important to understand that if you are making a film about something as important as voting, you'll turn off half the audience [if it's approached in a partisan manner]. On an issue as basic as voting, you don't serve any purpose in speaking to only one party." Their goal is for viewers to see the film, "not as an attack, but as a plea to protect our votes."

The team is working with publicists in Los Angeles and New York and in Santa Fe and other cities, "so it gets high visibility," Block explains. They are screening the film at 100 theaters and, like Earnhardt, working with field people to do outreach and activities groups, to build grassroots, and to help those groups. "It's a good mix of not-for-profit and nonpartisan," Block continues, "mixed with traditional for-profit marketing." Block also credits the blogosphere with advancing notice of the film.

Fadiman spoke at length about Matthew Segal, founder and executive director of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE), a student-led, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to removing access barriers and increasing civic education for young people; he is also a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, the nation's first student-run think-tank. Segal's vision for what he will be doing with Stealing America on college campuses and with related activities includes post-screening discussions, dissemination of election reform packages, and using well-visited websites to create awareness of the film.

Segal's ideas fit Fadiman's objective, which is "to make people alert and aware that the election systems we have in place are not secure, and to not be afraid or shy to raise our voices."

Admittedly, this is an uphill battle, as Earnhardt cautions: "Election manipulation rarely even makes a top ten issues list. But think about it: If your vote doesn't count, then nothing else really matters."

 

Cathleen Rountree, Ph.D., is a culture journalist, film critic and author of nine books including. Her blog at www.WomeninWorldCinema.org closely follows the work of female directors and global women's issues as addressed in films.

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