A friend of mine founded and ran a successful small business, employing 100 people. Recently, he sold his interest, and he is using his new wealth to take out ads in the local papers that go something like this: After Kerry wins the election but before he takes office, a cabal led by Bush Sr. will rig a terror attack that will kill Dubya. In the resulting national calamity, a national Skull & Bones unity government with Bush Sr. and Kerry will be convened to suspend the Constitution and usher us into a new fascist dictatorship.
Alas, my friend is not alone. When I read e-mail or venture out to talk with audiences these days, there's a widespread suspicion afoot that George W. Bush or the people around him will somehow rig, cancel, or otherwise mess with Election '04, if not our representative democracy itself. Such chatter was only compounded by Tom Ridge's announcement in July that intelligence reports indicated that (duh!) Al Qaeda would like to interfere with the elections and a Newsweek report thereafter that the Department of Homeland Security has asked the Justice Department to look into possible plans to delay an election in such an event. Oh, and they're messing with the purges of voter rolls in Florida again. And nobody trusts touch-screen voting machines.
Relax. The election will proceed on schedule and without a coup, sanitized or otherwise.
We know Al Qaeda would like to influence our election—they already did that in Spain. But that's not the same as postponing it; Spain's election went on as planned three days after the Madrid train bombing. It just resulted in the ouster of a government that reflexively lied about the attack's origins. But if we can shop as normal in the face of a terrorist threat, we can certainly hold our elections on schedule.
Too many people are ready, in Washington state and around the country, to erupt in holy hades should any sort of shenanigans take place.
Beyond Al Qaeda, the paranoia about this fall's election rests on two factors: what happened in 2000 and the awareness that these guys seem willing to do anything to stay in power. But that doesn't mean they'd get away with it, or that they're stupid enough to try.
We would-be generals are forever fighting the last war; the last war, in this case, was a legal coup d'etat in 2000 that was only made possible by the closest Electoral College tally in modern times and a remarkable confluence of factors and events, not the least of which was that people weren't expecting it.
This time, plenty of people, like my friend, are bracing themselves for the worst, or at least admitting to the possibility. But that says more about a slice of the electorate than it does about what will actually happen. And what it says is this: A sizable number of people are really, really cynical about our democracy, who controls it, and to what length our nation of laws has been compromised by the corruption of the people making and interpreting those laws.
All true enough. From the gerrymandering of congressional districts to the influence of big money to the two-party duopoly to a venal media and disengaged public, there are plenty of ways our democracy doesn't work very well. But even in 1864, in the midst of a bloody Civil War, we managed a presidential election. We also had one in 1812, during a war in which the British eventually burned down the Capitol. Elections are something the United States has done very well, and very regularly, since 1788. Karl Rove might be an evil, manipulative figure, but he's no match for Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln. Nor is George Bush.
There are plenty of ways in which the Republicans—and Democrats—will try to exploit every possible legal advantage, and doubtless a few illegal ones, in the coming campaign and polling. Is it rigged, though? Sure it is, by big money, advantages of incumbency, and all those antidemocratic factors we already know about. That's plenty enough to corrupt any election.
George Bush could win, fair and square. That possibility should be enough to galvanize anyone to preventive action. But there's no need to go and invent other scenarios that aren't going to happen.