Democracy on the march

by Keith Barber

Everywhere I look these days, I see democracy in action. On Oct. 16, the first day of early voting in the state, I went to the Forsyth County Government Center and was blown away by what I witnessed — scores and scores of voters lined up inside the atrium of the ultra-modern building, waiting patiently for their opportunity to discharge their civic duty. Man, what a sight! I never thought I would say this, but there was electricity in the air — electricity and an undeniable sense of optimism.

“This is democracy in its purest form,” Lamar Joyner, deputy director of elections, raved. “This is our Super Bowl.”

For me, talking to early voters and poll workers was a thousand times better than watching the Giants defeat the Patriots. As I watched the lines move slowly from the ground floor up the escalator to the second-floor catwalk, I noticed that early voters were trending younger.

I spoke with Aadil Anvery and Marc Gura, second-year Wake Forest medical students, who attributed the high turnout to the state of the economy and the easy accessibility of information via the internet. Anvery said the top issues for many students have shifted from the war in Iraq or health care to the economy, due in large part to the fact many of them are burdened with student loans. However, the more informed the electorate is, the quicker it can make up its mind about the candidates, Anvery said. Students are generally computer-savvy and get much of their news from the internet, so it makes sense that a significant percentage of the more than 1,700 votes cast on Day One came from students, he said.

Stanley Johnson, a senior majoring in political science at Winston-Salem State University, turned out for the first day of early voting. Johnson helped organize a one-mile march of more than 200 students from Winston-Salem State, Salem College and UNC School of the Arts on Oct. 16. Johnson said the Obama campaign’s voter registration drives on campus, and a personal appearance by Michelle Obama in April, had infused students with a new enthusiasm for participating in the political process.

“This is a monumental election,” Johnson said.

The Obama campaign did a great job letting students know that they could vote in Forsyth County, even if it was their home for just four years, Johnson said. Forsyth County Board of Elections director Rob Kaufman confirmed that students living in Forsyth County have a right to vote just like anybody else. All they have to provide is a student ID and university documentation that they reside in the community. The first day of early voting was clearly a harbinger of things to come. Less than two weeks later, on Oct. 27, Kaufman reported that more than 25,000 people had already cast their ballots during early voting. And what is happening in Forsyth is merely a reflection of larger trends on a state and national level. Gary Bartlett, executive director of the State Board of Elections, has stated that more than 800,000 new voters will be on the rolls by Nov. 1.

In his 2007 book, The Assault on Reason, former vice president Al Gore offers his diagnosis of America’s ailing democracy. Gore argues that, “the Republic of Letters has been invaded and occupied by the empire of television.” Gore asserts that technology — TV in particular — has harmed our democracy because it is a one-way device. Viewers receive but they don’t send. However, I would argue that other forms of technology, specifically personal computers and the internet, are powerful tools that can help inform and enlighten the electorate. And a well-informed electorate is essential to the survival of democracy. On this point, Mr. Gore and I are in accord.

“Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” wrote Thomas Jefferson.

Technology has helped to level the playing field. No longer do a handful of media outlets control most of the information in the public arena. During the Bush administration’s buildup to the war in Iraq in late 2002 and early 2003, we learned that the mainstream does not always serve the public trust. The American people were not given vital information upon which to decide whether or not a preemptive war with Iraq best served the national interest. With the election less than a week away, it seems like all we see are negative political TV ads. But for some reason, this year is different. I watch these misleading, hateful attacks and I don’t feel the least bit concerned. I have faith in my fellow citizens that they will do their homework before they enter the voting booth before Nov. 1 during early voting or on Election Day. They will see through these transparent attempts to divide us. They will say, “Enough!” So now, when some “voice of God” narrator comes across the airwaves and starts telling half-truths, distortions and flat-out lies about a political opponent, I tune it out. Suddenly, all I see are the hopeful early voters waiting patiently to do their patriotic duty. Then, almost imperceptibly, I hear a tune, a melody that grows louder and louder until it’s ringing in my ears. And then, I sing:

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution

Take a bow for the new revolution

Smile and grin at the change all around

Pick up my guitar and play

Just like yesterday

Then I’ll get on my knees and pray

We don’t get fooled again.

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