Catching the Bus for Election Reform

What would induce me, a 45-year-old woman, to spend two nights sleeping on a bus, with 11 hours of standing around in wind, rain, and sleet sandwiched between? The same cause inspired more than 50 other Maine people as well—teachers, teenagers, artists, college students, retired folks, mothers, fathers, fishermen, a former Peace Corps trainer, a librarian, a poet, a doctor, a state representative—to travel to Washington, D.C. in the VoterMarch bus organized by Barbara Skapa of Vienna and Jo Ann Campbell Simon of Camden. Along with the 23-hour bus ride, we shared a determination to voice our protests over the manner in which the result of the presidential election was decided.

If you watched the inauguration of George W. Bush as our 43rd president on television or read the coverage in the papers, you may not realize the extent, volume, and variety of the protests that concurrently took place. Our busload was a microcosm of the estimated 20,000 people who showed up to stand up for voting rights and fair elections. Many of us were first-time protestors, most are political moderates, but all of us have a deep love for our country and its principles of democracy, which have been an inspiration to freedom-lovers worldwide for two-and-a-quarter centuries.

After the 2000 presidential election outcome was summarily decided by the five justices of the Supreme Court, I felt concerned that a dangerous precedent had been set. The man who won the popular vote by garnering more than half a million votes beyond his opponent’s number—who won the most votes in America’s history, except for Ronald Reagan’s re-election—did not win the presidency. In addition, documented voting irregularities in Florida led to substantial questions about the apportionment of the Electoral College votes. Yet it seemed clear that the politicians and the media were willing to sweep these anomalies out of sight and pretend that the election had been democratically concluded.

As Maine voters, it is hard for us to imagine that people in other parts of the United States don’t always experience democracy in the straightforward way we do here. We can register at the polls when we go in to vote on Election Day. We have candidates who run their campaigns under the Maine Clean Election standards. Our Electoral College votes are apportioned according to the outcome of our popular vote. Often, we even know the people who are counting the ballots late into the night after the polls close. We trust the system.

Unfortunately, our experience is not universal. My niece, who moved to Tampa, Florida, in September, registered to vote soon after moving to her new home. But when she appeared at the polls on Election Day, she was not listed as an eligible voter. After standing in various lines for several hours, she was told that there was no record that she had ever registered and she would not be allowed to cast a vote. A bureaucratic snafu? Perhaps. But as we now know, such individual problems added up to a critical mass weighty enough to shift an election.

On Saturday, in Washington, our busload of protestors arrived at Dupont Circle at about 7:00 in the morning. By 9:30, a huge crowd of people had joined us. The rally was organized by VoterMarch, a group calling for election reform. People had come from all over the country—Washington, California, Florida, Georgia, and many states in between. Ages ranged from babies in strollers to gray-haired seniors. Although obviously upset about the way the election was terminated, the group was friendly and good-humored. Most people carried home-made protest signs, some of which were quite witty. Street-theater groups performed skits: a group of “Caribou” begged us to leave the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge alone; another group dressed in top hats and tails who billed themselves as the “Billionaires for Bush” sang satirically of their gratitude for the election results. A variety of speakers inspired the crowd, including a voting official from Miami-Dade County, and Granny D., the remarkable 91-year-old New Hampshire woman who walked across the country last year to support campaign finance reform.

VoterMarch and other groups had been given a number of permits allowing them to stage demonstrations in various sites. Several thousand protestors left DuPont Circle to march to another location. Stopped by police enroute who prevented them from reaching their permitted destination, a minor skirmish ensued. But, as a whole, the relations between law enforcement and protestors were quite respectful and sometimes downright cordial.

Just before noon, five of us decided to make our way from DuPont Circle to the parade route to see what was happening there, instead of attending another rally scheduled to occur on the Ellipse. After skirting several detours, we finally arrived at Pennsylvania Avenue not far from the White House. Once we passed through the police checkpoint (backpacks and bags were searched and some of us were frisked), we could walk along the parade route. Helicopters hovered overhead. Sharpshooters lined the roofs of nearby buildings, ominously silhouetted against the sky. Police were stationed every eight feet on each side of the street, facing the crowds, with marines in khaki uniforms interspersed among them. A phalanx of mounted police stood at attention.

The military order of the police ranks contrasted sharply with the chaos of the crowds. We were astonished to find that, at least within the stretch of the parade route that we walked along, Bush supporters were in little evidence. The official bleachers, for which attendees needed tickets, were sparsely filled. Some of those seated held protest signs. On the ground, the sidewalks were thronged with ad hoc protestors packed together like rush-hour subway riders. Many people held signs. Waves of chanting rolled up and down the line. “What do we want? DEMOCRACY! When do we want it? NOW!” The atmosphere was one part carnival, one part serious civil action. A sense of camaraderie filled the air as these citizens, hopping up and down to stay warm, traded stories of how they decided to join the protest. The vast majority had no affiliation to a particular group—they simply felt a need to vent their frustration at a system gone awry.

One young woman, a law-student from Washington, told me that she was a Republican who voted for Bush. But she wasn’t angry to see all the demonstrators. “I guess I agree with them to some extent,” she said. “If Gore had won by those means, I would be very upset.”

I thought of all the people at home who had expressed support when I told them that I was heading to Washington. I had been bowled over by their fervor. A neighbor baked me a batch of cookies to bring on the bus. A Republican friend confessed that she was ashamed of the way the election was concluded. People who had heard about my plans from mutual friends called to thank me for going. Many said they wished that they too could be there. All seemed to feel betrayed by the process, and concerned about what its outcome means for the future.

The new president’s motorcade rushed by my section of the parade route at about 4:00 in the afternoon. An incredible din of booing and jeering from the crowds lining the route preceded it. A platoon of secret service motorcycles flanked several limousines with darkly tinted windows. I couldn’t tell which car held my new president, though I think I caught a glimpse of Vice President Cheney’s face. As the motorcade passed, people around me chanted, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at the speeding cars. We energetically waved our protest signs. No matter how thick the bulletproof glass, the president and his coterie must have heard the blast of the crowds’ disapproval.

My new friends and I walked back to the subway with hundreds of strangers carrying similar signs. Though cold, hungry, and soaked to the bone, everyone seemed cheerful, as though something of significance had been accomplished and we had played a part in its success.

After returning home early Sunday morning, I continue to feel buoyed by the experience. It was wonderful to know that 20,000 other people shared my anxiety about our country’s future and were moved to do something about that anxiety. But I know this optimism may be short-lived. Why isn’t everyone upset about the way this election was conducted? Don’t they believe that the right to vote and have that vote counted is the very foundation of democracy? Democracy is by its very nature a participatory process. No one who cares about our country should be able to resist the call for election reform.

 

[© Barbara Burt; unpublished]