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Election Exposé

It seems as if politicians can noiselessly sway the lives of many—intentionally. “We have some measure of control in our tiny personal lives but the larger reality is manipulated by far greater forces,” writes Spencer Overton in Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression (W.W. Norton and Company, 2006).

According to Overton, an associate professor of law, election guidelines are often crafted by consultants who are usually unknown to the public. Advisers, counselors, and professionals are brought together matter-of-factly, and charged with the task of funneling charm, influence, and savvy to lasso election and re-election victories for a roster of candidates. Politicians can then “group voters so that incumbents will almost always beat challenger candidates, or so that candidates from one party … are almost guaranteed to win in most of the districts,” Overton writes.

This is possible because all states are required to redraw—or gerrymander—their U.S. House boundaries during a once-in-a-decade procedure, following the U.S. Census. This is done, Overton explains, “so that each district within the state has the same number of people and meets one person/one vote requirements.” But these negotiations can only be endorsed if two-thirds of the state legislators agree to the terms; otherwise, the issue goes to referendum, which rarely happens.

Overton describes career moves of Michael Berman of BAD Campaigns, who is well-known for creating “hard-hitting television spots and direct mail for many of California’s most powerful Democrats.” According to Overton, Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) told the Orange County Register: “I spend $2 million [campaigning] every election. If my colleagues are smart, they’ll pay their $20,000, and Michael [Berman] will draw the district they can win in. Those who have refused to pay? God help them.”

It is neither uncommon for the at-the-moment dominant party to “strengthen[s] its grip by manipulating district lines,” Overton writes. Tom DeLay, for example, maneuvered an unprecedented, mid-decade gerrymander in Texas; in 2002, the Republicans had a 47 percent leverage of the congressional seats. Just after the 2004 election it was 66.

Overton believes certain reforms—minimizing political conflicts of interest, gift restrictions to lawmakers and candidates, and mandatory, universal voter registration—could ameliorate the disparities associated with suffrage. In addition: “We should employ a program of regular and unannounced independent audits of polling places, county election boards, secretary of state offices, and private vendors that provide voting machines,” Overton writes. “Such audits would examine voter-registration … voting machines, vote-tabulation systems, software, purge processes … Regular audits of large corporations protect shareholders … voters deserve no less.”

But, according to Overton, Anne Henderson, legislative director for the League of Women Voters of California, disagrees. When she viewed—and objected to—the state’s re-districted 2002 California map, Henderson concluded that its very architecture revealed “that voter participation doesn’t matter much.”

A Definitive Decade

A book with a terrifically tentacled texture, Edward D. Berkowitz’s Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies (Columbia University Press, 2006) outlines how social advancements redolent of the 1960s—riots to end the Vietnam War, Civil Rights legislation, The Voting Rights Act, and the introduction of Medicare—were truncated by the disillusionment of the 1970s.

Writer Tom Wolfe referred to the ’70s as the “me decade,” but that label might prove inaccurate, as Berkowitz shows. Though there was much self-absorption and self-examination in those days, these qualities did not preclude enormous and successful social shifts including women’s rights in the workplace and increased acceptance of homosexuality.

Some of these social responses were reactionary because the post-war faith that the public held for its government was rejected. Events such as the Nixon/Agnew resignations and the Vietnam War “ended the self-confident period that had prevailed after the Second World War and marked the start of something new. In this new era, a wide range of Americans—Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, blacks and whites, men and women—questioned the commonly held assumptions of the postwar era,” Berkowitz writes.

These episodes divided the country and burdened the citizenry with anger, feelings of betrayal, and a new demand: accountability. The heretofore protected private lives of politicians went public, as did the posses of paternalistic journalists.

The counterpoint to America’s unquiet mind was entertainment. People continued to go to the movies—Jaws, The Godfather, Rocky and Saturday Night Fever—but television, in many instances, was more soothing. Television, in fact, “was unavoidable,” Berkowitz writes, pointing out that “97.1 percent of American households contained a TV set in 1975.” And because television was so popular, television “contributed to the ways in which Americans experienced the seventies…The fact that so many people watched the same shows heightened television’s role as a source of common images and sounds,” Berkowitz writes.

And big audiences stayed faithful because there was a genre-show that suited nearly everyone. Besides the regular news broadcasts and sports, what remained were the variegated situation comedies such as the more serious, issue-oriented All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show; the nostalgic Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley, plus the escapist Charlie’s Angels and The Beverly Hillbillies, all of which were hits.

The scarcity of television channels was also an advantage to viewer “retainage.” Remembered sitcom images were identifiable and widely discussed.

It was a kind of graduated familiarity that—in part—guided the country back
to unity.

—David Bruce Smith