Charles M. Blow: We must altering our vision of how voting works

Swarming the polls, overwhelming them, may well be the only real shot at winning.

Photo by Matt Hamilton / Voters enter a polling place at Dawnville United Methodist Church in Dawnville, Ga., on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. (Matt Hamilton/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)

It has long been clear to me that we are teaching the concept of voting wrong, that we are buying into an idea of false hope and optimism that is easily exploited by those who want fewer people to vote and fewer votes to be counted.

The propaganda around voting is that of “one man (or woman), one vote,” “every vote counts,” and “free and fair elections.” That is simply not the case. I understand and appreciate the ideals, but reality is simply not aligned with this.

From the time I was a child and joined teams and clubs, we seemed to be voting on things. From the time we began to elect class officers, politics were part of our education. “Robert’s Rules of Order” ruled.

But that was direct democracy. Most of the time it was a show of hands in a room. Everyone present could count the votes. It was the ultimate in transparency and accountability and it laid the groundwork for how I would think about voting.

But as I got older and the elections got bigger, ballots began to be necessary. Also, the election of other people who would then vote for things in my stead. Direct democracy gave way to representative democracy and my perspective broadened.

Still, I went to a tiny school (there were 33 people in my graduating class) in the rural South. I could have learned more, been taught more about the long legacy of vote tampering and manipulation, voter intimidation and suppression, but that didn’t happen.

Neither did I learn enough about it in college. I knew the cursory, surface-level facts about poll taxes and literacy tests, the Freedom Riders and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The whole of the Civil Rights Movement had been reduced to quotes and cliches, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and Fannie Lou Hamer being “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

I emerged into full adulthood as a political naïf.

Then began my education, my quest to unlearn what little I had been taught and to learn for the first time all the things I hadn’t been taught.

First, I guess, were the widespread and never-ending attempts, with some devastating successes, to disenfranchise people, often Black people. And there was nothing like the sting of reading the words of some of the men who were engaged in this suppression. Nowadays, those who suppress votes disguise their motives, but years ago the motives were well articulated and abundantly clear: to establish white supremacy and disenfranchise the Negro.

Now, only the articulation is absent; the results are the same.

And even beyond voter suppression, there are errors and incompetence.

One thing I will never forget about the coverage we produced for The New York Times on the 2000 election was something that should have been obvious, but hadn’t been for me: that voting machine errors are well known and some degree of error, if small enough, was considered acceptable.

The idea of an acceptable error rate for voting has stuck with me ever since.

For instance, an NPR analysis last summer found that 550,000 primary absentee ballots were rejected, up from about 319,000 in 2016.

Then there is incompetence, like what we are seeing now in the mayoral primary election in New York City. The result of the tally may well be fine, but the haphazard handling of the vote counting undermines faith in the system.

And that’s the problem with all of this: maintaining that faith. It seems to me that setting expectations too high actually works against that faith, helps to undermine it, because those expectations will collapse under the weight of reality.

It also seems to me that it is much better to think of voting as a nest of ants, a swarm of bees, a brigade of soldiers attacking an enemy: Not everyone will survive, but the point is to achieve victory by overwhelming the enemy. Everyone one that falls in the attempt assists the others in prevailing.

Not everyone who should be able to cast a ballot will be able to. And, not every ballot cast will be properly counted. That is the sad reality of the American electoral system, and conservatives in this country have done their best to maintain or exacerbate it at all costs.

You can bristle at it. You should. I do. And liberal groups can fight back through organizing, legislation and the courts. But at the same time, you also have to realize that even if you win that battle, it won’t stay won. You have to have a new vision of voting, one that factors in the oppression and imposes itself in spite of it.

Voters must be taught that swarming the polls, overwhelming them, may well be the only real shot at winning: a single movement, an irresistible deluge of votes.

Charles Blow |The New York Times

Charles M. Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.