Thursday, December 09, 2004

Town halls in Washington and Kuwait
Town halls in Washington and Kuwait
Keith Olbermann

NEW YORK - For all the testimony, for all the verification provided that the names on the internet(s) belong to real people with real hairstyles, the key moment in Wednesday’s voting irregularities forum on Capitol Hill probably came during a colloquy between two of the Congressmen.

Jesse Jackson, Jr., of Illinois, turned to the chair of the ad hoc committee, John Conyers, of Michigan, and said “if the votes are not tallied in the state of Ohio by the appropriate time, is there any thought being given that the committee might consider an objection to the proceeding of the Ohio Electors until such time (as they are tallied)?”

Conyers replied, extending each word to about eleven syllables: “We are now.”

These were deep waters, and in an interview with Countdown’s Monica Novotny right after the forum closed, Conyers backed quite a bit away from the river’s edge. He said “We will wait for someone else,” in preference to drawing congress into a legal battle.

And a battle it would be, because the congressionalese Jackson and Conyers were using, translates roughly as this:

Jackson (translated): The Constitution says the states have to tally the votes of their citizens before they can send their electors to the Electoral College. If Ohio doesn’t finish its recount before the College votes, or before the vote is unsealed before Congress on January 6th, shouldn’t one of us raise a formal objection to those Ohio electors’ votes?

Conyers (translated): After what I heard today, we ought to talk about it.

You may recall that on the November 9th Countdown, law professor Jonathan Turley of George Washington University, a constitutional expert, told us that though the Electoral College votes next Monday, there is a subsequent window, and a process, for challenging whether voters from a state, pledged to one candidate and not the other, should be allowed to vote.

“If there are controversies,” Professor Turley reminded me, “such as some disclosure that a state actually went for Kerry (instead of Bush), there is the ability of members of Congress to challenge. It requires a written objection from one House member and one senator.”

Once that objection is raised, the joint meeting of the two houses, convened to formally count the Electoral College votes and certify the winner of the presidential election, would be immediately discontinued. “Then both Houses separate again and they vote by majority vote as to whether to accept the slate of electoral votes from that state.”

What Jackson was asking Conyers was whether or not the Congressmen who were at the voting forum should consider invoking that challenge. The threat was raised in 2000, but Al Gore insisted no Democratic representative or senator should wield the cudgel. It last came up in the 1876 mess and it is not a pleasant thing - the wackier of the politically active of the day started to wonder aloud about rebellion.

But despite Conyers’ back-pedaling in the subsequent interview, Congressman Jackson’s question raises an essential point. If the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee who convened the forum seriously believe something went astray in Ohio - even something entirely attributable to static cling in the computers - they should put some of their political capital where their mouths are.

These minority members, who now say they are headed to Ohio to conduct field hearings to listen directly to the grievances of voters there, have provided an invaluable service in forcing at least part of the mainstream to provide a platform for the 20% or more of the citizenry who suspect error or subterfuge.

But to stop there is to subject themselves to accusations of political cowardice and grandstanding. If, in Ohio, or in the calculations of the academics, or in subsequent developments, they conclude there is reasonable evidence that the vote there was rotten - merely accidentally so - one of them in the House and one of them in the Senate should stand up and produce that written challenge to the Ohio electors’ credibility.

As Jonathan Turley suggested - and logic confirms - for the formal challenge to get anything but token support in the Senate and the House, there would have to be overpowering, dramatic, conclusive, evidence to suggest not merely a sour vote but one so screwed up that it could produce a different outcome. And the likelihood of such evidence turning up in the next month is infinitesimally small.

But the challenge itself, even if it garnered exactly one vote each from the Senate and House, would be a powerful protest, and an earnest signal that a full investigation of what happened in Ohio should take place, even after the inauguration. It could even be relevant, legally, in terms of the impounding of voting machines and records, to serve as the basis for some later examination to determine what, if anything, failed - and how it could be prevented from failing again.

There is no question it would be a short-term political liability - even a fatality - to the Representative and Senator who signed it. But, especially with that realization, it would not be an act of partisanship, but of patriotism.

You know - like those soldiers in Kuwait Wednesday morning who gave Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld the shock of his life by asking him searing questions about how the troops in, and on their way to, Iraq, are supplied - or not supplied.

Whether you support the war in Iraq or have protested against it, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, whether you are a Veteran, or a Conscientious Objector, it was an appalling image presented by Army Specialist Thomas Wilson of the 278th Regimental Combat Team: “We've had troops in Iraq coming up on three years and we've all been staged here out of Kuwait. Now why do we soldiers have to dig through local land fills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles, and why don't we have those resources readily available to us?"

For the record, the media got a hold of Specialist Wilson's former wife. She says that she and her ex-husband both voted for President Bush and that they support him "100 percent." She also said Wilson would’ve asked the same question if the president had been standing there instead of Mr. Rumsfeld.

And she didn't like the reply he got. Quoting her: "Rumsfeld's answer seemed like he was sidestepping around the question. If there is something lacking, perhaps that is why our death toll is climbing."

U.S. service men and women are constantly in harm’s way - 1,000 of them now dead in action in Iraq, and another 10,000 injured as of Tuesday night - and they have to scrounge through the garbage to find materials with which to try to keep themselves in one piece. I don’t know whether to weep, or punch somebody.

The same story about insufficient armor, has previously been a campaign issue, a subject that brought up charges of inadequate patriotism in both political directions, and an urban legend. But to hear the men and women at the front hit the Secretary of Defense over the head with it, was an extraordinary moment.

Too extraordinary for one viewer, a veteran, who suggested that the “Town Hall” format in which superior officers or non-military figures open the floor to questions from the grunts, invariably comes with exhaustive preparation, even rehearsal. The viewer wondered if it was possible that the commanders on the ground at that camp in Kuwait could not have known those were the types of questions that were coming - and might’ve thought that was a particularly useful thing for the Secretary, the media, and the public, to hear.

A little too neatly planned of a theory for my tastes. But regardless, retired General Barry McCaffrey was on the show tonight and he agreed with me: The soldiers who broached those questions weren’t complainers or politically motivated. They were Patriots.

It was an eloquent and conclusive argument that dissent is not dangerous to democracy - it is its lifeblood.

originally posted December 8, 2004