Some things you can’t just throw out

October 21, 2012 at 3:32 pm Leave a comment

The best choice would have been to throw out the registration form.

I don’t know if that was the young man’s first choice, but it was almost his final one. The form was just one guy, and there was some error I don’t recall, and the young man had been registering people in the state for only a few days, and, and, and . . .

And the only answer was, you can’t throw it out. The reasons are almost religious. I registered in high school, and have only missed one opportunity to vote in those thirty-eight years. (My boss was supporting the conservative in a Senate primary, and I liked John Warner, and the boss sent me out of town before the election and after the absentee deadline. I’m sure it was a coincidence.) The argument finally boiled down to, you just can’t. And he didn’t, and the guy got his form back and did whatever he needed to to re-register, and the young man was equal parts victorious at registering another potential Democrat and relieved at not having decided to cheat. Because this is why this country doesn’t have juntas taking over the TV stations and occupying the airports, and why we have to all play by the same rules. Register, vote, register, vote, register, vote.

But it’s admittedly easier to be pure on this side of the aisle, the Democratic side. New voters tend to vote for Democrats. Right or wrong, good or bad, they do. It’s a number. I’ve joked for several months that every new registrant at JMU is .79 Democrats. For all I know the number is right. I know it’s close. And I’ve enjoyed thinking about that number as I’ve watched the Find Them and Remind Them approach to grass-roots campaigning. Registration and ID calls are like the NFL draft and the pre-season, and the final weeks of the campaign are the playoffs.

So I’ve been wondering for the past few days what could have possessed someone on the Pub side to throw out a handful of registration forms. And as the ideas range from the blundering to the sinister, I wonder a little what they were doing registering people to begin with.

Part of the reason Florida in 2000 remains a metaphor for continuing national deadlock is how well it captured the best strategies for both parties. Bush was ahead by a gnat’s ass. The Pubs needed to freeze the results. The Dems wanted to open up the process, because they had nothing to lose, but could claim they wanted every vote counted. Imagine a world where you can say the right thing and mean it. Twelve years later, the Pubs want to freeze the field and not let new people register and vote. That’s why they make it harder. Statistically, they’re not making any more Republicans. The Pubs need to keep the ones they have and block new ones, and that need hasn’t been kind to the registration and voting process.

There are sacramental rules to registering. How much you obey them varies. In my church, you take smaller sips as the chalice empties. You can’t refill it, because the rest of the bottle hasn’t been blessed yet. In a friend’s church, her mother takes the leftover bread to feed to her chickens. Maybe some sacrament had been skipped. The form was filled out by a felon, the form was late, the ink colors didn’t match on two parts of the form. All that is the voter Registrar’s problem. He or she has to decide if the form is good and keep it or reject it.  But that might not be apparent in a party that’s often perverted the idea of personal responsibility until it’s impersonal and irresponsible. (My grandmother didn’t personally earn the Black Lung benefits she lived on for twenty-five years but she watched her husband die at age fifty-six after a shortened life in the mines. Forty-seven that, Mitt.) In a party that’s raised blame and accusation to ritual status, I can picture a young man with dicey forms fearing for his future enough to just throw them out.

Which is the blundering idea.

Then there’s the idea in the middle. That’s the idea that they were just throwing out the forms of people who were likely Dems. Some folks have asked how you can do that in a state that doesn’t register people by party. You can do it by age. Younger people tend Dem. You can do it by surname. Some ethnic groups tend Dem. And you can do it by a two-minute conversation while you’re registering. “How about that debate?” “Yeah, the man kicked some butt.” Depending on the debate, you keep that one or toss it. It’s not that complicated. But it still leaves you wondering why those people were registering voters to begin with, if most of the new ones are on our side.

So maybe they were throwing out all of them. Maybe they were registering people and tossing the forms just to take the folks out of the voter pool. If a voter thinks he registered in Elkton he has no reason to walk into the Obama office on Court Square and register again. But can’t those people check their registration status online? Sure they can, but people who register on impulse at a street fair or a table at the mall aren’t necessarily obsessed with the process. Don’t they get receipts? Well, they’re supposed to, and maybe they keep them. Maybe they don’t.

That’s the sinister interpretation.

We’ll never know which of these it was, and it will be like seeing a roach skitter across the floor. Are there really ten more inside the wall, or did that one just sneak in somehow? You hope there’s just the one, but you’ve been told to expect there are more. I doubt the more sinister ideas, but the fact remains that the other party hired a firm accused of using questionable tactics to register voters. They fired the firm when questions arose this year, and then they rehired the firm’s employees. It doesn’t help the system to assume an innocent motivation on their part.

Because any system works less well once it’s corrupted. A church works better when it’s saving souls than when it’s fighting contraception. A bank works better when it’s making mortgages than when it’s designing Collateralized Debt Obligations. A school works better when it’s trying to educate students than when it’s trying to create employees. A registration system works better when it’s just trying to get people to vote. Any people. Anybody.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to know how you’d judge the young man accused of tossing the registration forms. If you judge him on result, you have to know whether this changed an election or just screwed a few individuals. If you judge him on intent, you have to know if the reasons were blundering or sinister. If you judge him on what’s already happened, it’s unclear how things get worse. Everything about his resume indicates he wanted to make a living in the political system. People don’t take unpaid internships or work in campaign offices because they want to make money. At least they’d better not. National exposure in an incident that may have corrupted that system would seem to end that career path. I feel sorry for him, but not enough to want a Romney presidency.

Like anybody, I have to wonder what it would be like to hold in my hand the one piece of paper that might decide the next election, that might make Obama or Romney win Virginia or the nation. If I held that one form and I knew what it meant, would I have the conscience to accept the result either way? But there’s a world of difference between being faced with that choice, and going out to recruit voters knowing you might try to stop them. Besides that, it’s worth noting that over thirty years, a gubernatorial race, an attorney general’s race, and a senate race in Virginia have been decided by 6,700 votes, 300 votes, and 9,300 votes. You never know. Any one of us might hold that piece of paper in our hands in a couple of weeks.


Entry filed under: Elections, Politics, Uncategorized.

Karma, and the Worst Election Ever In a Harrisonburg minute

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