Voters’ voices won’t be heard

03Nov10

Yesterday afternoon I hit the polls, amped up, energized. And maybe that’s surprising. After all, I vote, for the time being, in South Carolina, where liberal votes haven’t meant a whole lot in recent elections. And unlike in 2008 — when I got to vote for a lesbian running for the House who only lost by 4 points — no candidates I really liked had a shot at winning. The Democratic candidates for the House and Senate didn’t merely have no shot — they had both upset the best candidates under highly suspicious circumstances. One, Alvin Greene, was a national laughingstock who initially couldn’t talk to the press without a prompter literally lurking in the shadows; the other, Ben Frasier, a longtime absentee candidate from Maryland. Neither bothered campaigning. So maybe I should have been dispirited, as the media tells me liberal voters were supposed to be this cycle.

But that wasn’t the case. Soon after the baffling primaries, via Facebook, I’d caught wind of a movement for avuncular Green Party candidate Tom Clements. His positions on the issues agreed with mine more than those of typical South Carolina Democrats, but it seemed that he would come off as reasonable and electable. He hammered Jim DeMint on the issues, but also on the fact that he wouldn’t debate Clements or campaign in the state. And while he pulled his punches slightly about Alvin Greene — perhaps reflecting a suspicion, shared by me, that the airman and newly-minted superhero had been put up to his run by more powerful forces — he made it clear that having an unqualified, embarrassing candidate in the Senate wouldn’t help.

For anyone who didn’t agree with DeMint’s extremism, misogyny and homophobia, and who expect their chosen candidate not to be — in Karl Fornes’ phrase — “a total moron,” it seemed that Clements was more or less the only reasonable choice. The average South Carolinian and I may not have agreed on much, but I thought they’d push the button for Clements too, if they knew who he was. For the longest time, they didn’t; as the weeks dragged on, I constantly searched Google News for mentions of Clements, and found few substantive mentions outside of roundup blogs like Green Party Watch and Independent Political Report. But, increasingly, there was optimistic news. Clements began raising money, eventually nabbing a few statewide radio and TV spots. The major Rock Hill Herald even endorsed him (although the equally desperate Charleston City Paper bizarrely went with write-in candidate and cook Nathalie Dupree, whose campaign strategy tolkienista summarized as “they will want to vote for me because food.”) I thought we could get double digits. I dared to hope we could get Clements ahead of Greene. But most of all, I expected that such a huge movement behind a third-party candidate — something rarely seen in South Carolina except in the context of explicit racism — would get enormous attention, at least, in the aftermath of the election. What was about to happen was interesting, wasn’t it? Isn’t that what drove press coverage?

Press stories on Election Day were soporific and insipid.The one whose title I riffed on consists merely of a list of who’s going to be on the ballot — hardly helpful, given that the ballot has everyone’s name and party on it — and a goddamn weather report. And even as the results rolled in, they remained soporific and insipid. While Clements struggled in a few rural edge counties where his campaign hadn’t penetrated, he piled up impressive numbers all over the place. 10.5% in rural Fairfield County. 10.3% in semi-rural Kershaw County. 11.8% in Beaufort, 11.9% in Lexington, 13.4% in Charleston, 19.0% in Richland. From people who had hardly ever voted for anything besides a Republican or a Democrat, and despite the exclusion of fellow Green Party candidate Morgan Reeves from a high-profile governors’ debate in which both major-party candidates performed horribly. Clements still got over 9% of the votes statewide.

An incredible phenomenon took place — a thoroughgoing rejection of fishy machine politics and contempt for voters, and an endorsement of this fellow who dared to actually campaign. In some of the counties where information about him was highest, he challenged for second. And yet the local press, the day after, still doesn’t grant Clements more than a token mention. Many articles don’t even mention how well he polled, erasing the messages sent by over 120,000 voters.

But maybe that’s what I should have expected. Maybe the media really is so attached to the two-party system, and even to the corrupt farce that passes for politics in the state, that the only response it can tolerate is to ignore a challenge to it. They want to treat this as a fluke, and in one way it was. This was a year when the major-party candidates really were so horrible that people began casting about for alternatives. But in another way it wasn’t — not in a year when several write-in and independent candidates won major races on the basis of previous major-party name recognition, and Eliot Cutler — a candidate with similar environmentalist emphasis to Clements* — nearly pulled out a last-second win in Maine. The fact that a third-party candidate got 9% of the vote in a traditionalist state, with almost all media actively freezing him out, makes one wonder what would have happened if they hadn’t been. Or if he decides — and please let him have the energy — to become a perennial candidate.

*In many places, green has become the default color for independents on political maps. In many cases, I think that’s appropriate. Sometimes not.

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