When is a Democracy Not a Democracy?
by Barbara Sumner Burstyn

January 20, 2004

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In a speech on November 19 last year, President George W. Bush extolled the virtues of democracy.

"We will help the Iraqi people establish a peaceful and democratic country in the heart of the Middle East," he said. The call for democracy has become so constant that one Gulf-based political analyst, Moghazy al-Badrawy, likens it to a boring, broken record that nobody believes.

But while Arabs are skeptical about America's motives and its methods of bringing democracy to their world, closer to home few people are querying the supposed base of their society.

Perhaps they should be. It's not only the growing reality of Fortress America and the increasing level of civil constraints that are causing some Americans to question their democratic basis; the integrity of the electoral system itself is under fire.

Take last year's November 5 election in Atlanta, Georgia.

Using the new federally mandated electronic voting system, with demographics virtually unchanged since the previous election four years earlier, the state experienced a whopping turnaround from Democrat to Republican.

The reversal of traditional voting patterns was so huge that not a single poll came close to predicting it. Eventually suspicion fell on the integrity of the new electronic voting system.

It turns out that the ATM-like system is owned by Diebold Inc, a company run by one of President Bush's most lucrative campaign contributors, a man who recently said he'd do whatever it took to deliver the election to his good friend the President.

An article by Mark Lewellen-Biddle explores the backers of a new law that makes e-voting mandatory across the United States and the manufacturers of e-voting machines.

He calls them a "rats' nest of conflicts" that includes major defense contractors, and asks why those companies with the most to gain from a particular electoral outcome are mucking about in the American electoral system.

The November issue of GQ magazine analyzed the mechanics of the new system. It reported that several hundred academics, a who's who of American computer science department heads and associates, had serious concerns.

The experts said the system did not have a voter-verifiable independent audit (paper) trail. There was no room for independent verification, no one was allowed to see source codes except the original programmers and, in the case of the Georgia election, last-minute "on the fly" changes that avoided the rigorous certification process trumpeted by election officials were made to the software.

Then there was the proprietary nature of the voting software and the secrecy, in the name of commercial interest, that shrouded its development and application.

In contrast, Australia has designed a system that addresses and eases these concerns.

With a transparency that should be the gold standard by which all democracies conduct themselves, it made the software running its electoral system completely open to public scrutiny.

Although designed by a private company, drafts as well as the finished software code were posted on the internet for all to see and evaluate.

This ruins one American election official's comment that no country in the world has the rigorous certification and testing standards used in the US.

Free elections represent democracy in action. It's absurd that this story, even the suspicion of corruption of the electoral system, is not front-page news across the nation. It's not. Instead you'll find it only in the alternative media.

Is this a sign of the hijacking of the media by corporate interest? Or is it a testament to the power of myth, the idea of democracy rather than the reality, a kind of collective amnesia of the American people and evidence of the "disinformation that dominates the information age" (as Noam Chomsky calls it).

Certainly President Bush continues to use the term liberally, inflecting it to mean liberty and freedom, as if that were a state available to all human beings if they just adopted the American way.

But perhaps it would be good to remember that democracy American-style actually means commercialism, competition, free market, industrialism, mercantilism and private enterprise. While not exactly an environment that ensures freedom from poverty, from dictators or even a level playing field, not to mention the right to vote in a government of the people's choosing, it does make perfect, commercially justified sense, especially for those with the most to gain.

Ultimately, perhaps the concept of democracy is just that; a concept, an opiate for the masses, a sense of freedom unshackled from reality, something administered to make you feel good, like a fine-wool blanket, light and warming, but ultimately smothering.

So is America a democracy in name only?

Over the coming year as the US gears up for its "democratic election", it might be apposite to ponder this question and the strange fact that the bigger the lie, the louder the lie - and the longer the lie is told, the more people will generally believe it.

After all, the Greek philosopher Plato said in The Republic that democracy leads to anarchy. Not exactly the situation that the world's only remaining superpower, with an entire universe (don't forget the Moon and Mars) to conquer, is keen to encourage.

Barbara Sumner Burstyn is a freelance writer who commutes between Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. She writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz), and has contributed to a wide range of media. She can be reached at: barb@sumnerburstyn.com. Visit her website to read more of her work: www.sumnerburstyn.com/ 2004 Barbara Sumner Burstyn

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* Hooker Look in Fashion as Porn Becomes de Rigueur

* The Twisted Logic of Mothers Who Abandon Mothering

* Only in America

* We Really are Living on the Dark Side of the Moon

* Viagra for Girls: Medical Light Bulbs Can't Switch off Relationship Woes

* No Room on the Balance Sheet for Truth or Humanity

* Working to Live has Been Overtaken by Living to Work








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