Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Late Registration

Predictably as the day of reckoning draws ever nigher, the most interesting arts story I've seen all week was in the front of the book--Jim Dwyer's About New York column in the New York Times of Saturday, October 25. Headline: "Digital-Age Voters In Electoral Limbo." Its subject, of special interest to me because I believe voter suppression is the cornerstone of the Republican strategy for November 4, was yet another big-time problem with new-voter registration, this time involving Rock the Vote, a music-biz-rooted organization dating back to Bush I which reports that over two-and-half million prospective voters have downloaded registration form from its website in 2008. I think Rock the Vote, which sets up booths at festivals and concerts as well as running many celebrity ads, is a great idea. But I've never been able to rid my mind of a stat I encountered in an upstate paper a decade or so ago, which examined dozens of demographics and concluded that no American subgroup was less likely to vote than regular clubgoers. So when Newsweek's Jonathan Alter formulated a McCain-wins scenario in which collegians nationwide reported that, actually, they hadn't voted for Barack because they were "too busy," I shuddered. And after reading Dwyer's report that 100,000 Rock the Vote forms printed out with the wrong address, I groaned in agony.

That said, I found Dwyer's story slightly suspect. I've been a fan ever since he did the subway column in the much-missed New York Newsday. But like so many front-of-the-bookers, Dwyer, born 1957, looks down on flibbertigibbets. Something about MTV, Xbox, and the always-good-for-a-snark P. Diddy putting "a high gloss on the dreary nuts and bolts of filling out forms" makes him itch--just as something about the professionally hard-nosed reporting on the pop music world makes me itch. I couldn't escape the feeling that Dwyer was enjoying himself too much when he revealed that Rock the Vote had instructed young voter in New York State to send the forms to Albany rather than to their county boards of elections, as the law apparently requires. Still, Rock the Vote spokesperson Stephanie Young certainly stepped in it when Dwyer pressed her about how Rock the Vote planned to rectify the error: "Once they register with Rock the Vote, they print it out and send it themselves. We're out of it after that. Then it's on the State Board of Elections." Not a flattering printbite.

When I called Young myself, however, I found there was more to the story. Dismayed by both Dwyer's story and the problems he'd brought to light, which had barely surfaced before, Rock the Vote has put out an indignant response. And Dwyer had filed a somewhat more sympathetic follow-up piece--online-only, wouldn't y'know. Headline: an unflashy "'Rock the Vote' Tracks Registration Problems." Let me boil it all down.

First of all, Rock the Vote is now being somewhat more proactive than Young implied about these problems, which extend beyond New York state. It's doing investigations, sending out mass emails, and advising would-be voters how to rectify bureaucratic snafus (as Dwyer's second piece also did, and good for him). What's clear from both follow-ups is that some of this mess is on local election officials, who in New York as in most states are famously hidebound and incompetent. But there's more back story than that. Rock the Vote claims that it had the forms sent to state governments on the explicit instruction of the federal Elections Assistance Commission. Or maybe it was just permission--it's obviously easier to set up online forms for 50 states then for how many thousands of individual counties. Maybe it's making excuses. But I have a more paranoid hunch.

The reason I fear voter suppression is that I'm convinced that one fundamental purpose of the federal election law of 2002, Orwellianly entitled the Help America Vote Act, is to stop Americans from voting--to set up roadblocks in the name of preventing a fraud that almost never happens at the polling place (however much it does or doesn't happen at the registration level, the key to the overblown and poorly reported Acorn story). I wonder whether whoever answered Rock the Vote's questions at the federal Elections Assistance Commission was guilty of incompetence, indifference, or malfeasance. I wonder whether he or she deliberately misled Rock the Vote, secure in the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of young people wouldn't vote because their forms would get hopelessly delayed in the shuffle. There's one for the front of the book. No finder's fee.

The day of reckoning does approach. I myself don't believe the election will be anywhere near as one-sided as the front-of-the-book guys tell us, and pray that just makes me a hysterical arty-farty. Nevertheless, I'm spending November 1 through 3 with Obama's Alexandria, Virginia, office, then phonebanking in NYC on Election Day. I urge everyone reading this to put hours aside in the coming days and work for the candidate of my choice.

1 Comment

By dean jones on November 4, 2008 7:35 PM

Well, I guess voter suppression wasn't an issue after all . . .

Articles, Oct. 29, 2008

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