To hear the mainstream media tell it, the 2004 elections were a crushing defeat for progressives. Massive voter turnout among right-wing Christians gave George W. Bush a decisive reelection margin of 3.5 million votes, and Republicans widened their majorities in both houses of Congress by four seats.
Progressives were not the only ones licking their wounds on November 3, however—especially at the state and local level. Democrats won the governorships in the traditionally conservative states of Montana and New Hampshire and picked up three red-state legislative chambers. In Minnesota, Democrats nearly eliminated a Republican majority in the House of Representatives by taking a 26-seat lead down to just 2. The Idaho legislature has its first openly lesbian member. Insurgent Dems knocked off incumbent conservatives in North Carolina’s state legislature and ousted the longest-serving Republican congressman in Illinois. And seven U.S. senators who voted against the Iraq war were reelected by an average margin of 30 percent.
Also, while voters approved antigay measures in 11 states, a slew of forward-thinking ballot measures were passed on November 2—including alternative transportation plans in San Diego, Denver, and Austin; an antinuclear initiative in Washington State; and a minimum wage hike in Florida that passed by a whopping 72 percent. “That’s a powerful message to progressives everywhere that environmental issues and economic populism speak to people,” says Mark Ritchie, president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
Wins and losses aside, he says, “November 2 was one of the most inspiring days of my life.” Ritchie was the key organizer of the National Voice, a coalition of more than 2,000 nonpartisan, nonprofit community groups dedicated to increasing citizen participation in the 2004 elections (the same people who distributed those ubiquitous “November 2” T-shirts and bumper stickers). “The level of political mobilizing by ordinary citizens toward one goal—taking back our nation—was beyond even my wildest dreams,” Ritchie says.
Harnessing the energy of the antiwar movement and Howard Dean’s grassroots presidential campaign, these groups registered 4 million new voters—primarily single women, minorities, immigrants, and young people. With an army of 100,000 volunteers, they then turned out between 5 million and 7 million new and infrequent voters on Election Day. “It made a huge difference in the outcome of thousands of elections and ballot initiatives that day,” Ritchie says, “but more importantly, it revealed to the world the size and scope of the pro-democracy movement that already exists here in the United States.”
Knowing that massive numbers of volunteers and activists were mobilized is not only cause for optimism, it also provides an opportunity to further promote progressive causes and future candidates. The question is whether or not, in the wake of a heated presidential race, there is an issue that can galvanize enough people to capitalize on the momentum. Ritchie thinks he already knows what is capturing and will continue to hold people’s imagination: the fate of our democracy.
Despite record voter turnout, the 2004 elections were marred by widespread reports of voter fraud and intimidation, particularly in poor and minority precincts. As this issue of Utne went to press, nothing had surfaced to change the election’s outcome, but allegations were flying on the Internet and in the independent media concerning discarded punch-card ballots, hacked electronic voting machines, names mysteriously disappearing from voting lists, and other dirty tricks.
“We are spending thousands of lives of young Americans and billions of dollars to bring fair elections to Afghanistan and Iraq,” Ritchie says, “while the voting system is breaking right here at home.”
In order “to restore faith in the U.S. electoral system,” Ritchie is calling for an independent citizens’ commission to investigate these allegations. The commission would mobilize Ritchie’s network of community groups to organize a series of regional hearings and town meetings throughout the country, and then publish a report that would document the breakdown in voting systems as well as recommend specific electoral reforms at the local, state, and federal level. The commission would also distribute a handbook for citizens that would instruct them on how to conduct a “pro-democracy audit” of their local election processes and pursue needed reforms.
It remains to be seen whether Ritchie is right in believing that democracy issues alone will stir a collective, progressive passion. Others are betting that the ongoing war in Iraq or the environment or health care will do the same. And it’s possible that no single issue will emerge to turn this brand-new voting bloc into a solid base. But one thing is certain: Progressives are more organized and numerous than they have been since the 1960s, which, if they stay motivated, will make them a force to contend with now and in the future.