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Director’s Statement

 

Remember, democracy never lasts long.   It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.  There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.

                                                                                    --John Adams, 1814                  

 

Like most people, the vote counting debacle in Florida following the 2000 Presidential election left me wondering, how could this happen? What’s wrong with the system? Where is our democracy headed?

 

In 2001, my younger brother Tim, a come-on-let’s-save-the-world type straight out of college, went to work for the Election Board in Indianapolis.  For the next two years I listened in amazement to his descriptions of the obstacles he and his coworkers faced as they worked to make elections happen.  Changes in election laws, new voting machines, and lawsuits over ballot design were minor challenges compared to the ongoing crisis presented by the lack of volunteer poll workers. Who knew that at least five specifically trained volunteers are needed for every polling place on Election Day…and that these volunteers are aging and rapidly dwindling in numbers? Tim said the shortage of volunteers was so severe that on the eve of the 2004 primary they tried to recruit poll workers at a homeless shelter. These experiences were changing my brother from a young idealist to an exasperated twenty-something ready to quit.  “It’s not worth it. Nobody cares,” he said to me one September evening as the tension mounted around the 2004 Presidential election. And I thought to myself…that’s because nobody knows.

 

 I was now convinced that the people I knew, myself included, while extremely politically opinioned, didn’t have a clue about what was involved in running an election. Struck by the extent to which we take our democracy for granted, I decided to try get under the skin of the process. I wanted to show people who and what it takes to put on an American election, and hopefully motivate them to participate—to keep this a government by the people.

 

I was fortunate that Doris Anne Sadler, the County Clerk and my brother’s boss, vehemently agreed with me that the public is unaware of what goes into conducting an election. She too believed that this lack of understanding is largely responsible for the public’s increasing apathy and disinterest in participating in elections.  For these reasons, Doris Anne bravely opened the doors to her hectic office and offered me and my crew complete access to film every part of the election process leading up to and including the 2004 Presidential election in Marion County, Indianapolis, Indiana.

 

From figuring out a way for a quadriplegic who resides in a nursing home to vote, even though he doesn’t have the requisite, official proof of residence, to training 5,000 volunteer poll workers in just a few days, to dozens of situations in between, I was staggered by the subtlety, complexity and enormity of the overall task. Not to mention the confounding lack of resources to get the job done. Witnessing this left me with a profound appreciation that the system functions at all. 

 

I was stunned not only by the magnitude of what is required to put on an election, but also by the fragility of the system, which depends entirely on a few dedicated government employees and a huge cadre of citizen volunteers.  I took every opportunity to capture reactions—from frustration to exhilaration, exhaustion to elation—as Doris Anne and her team wrestled with the mounting problems.

 

Marion County’s small and dedicated team of local government employees is just one of thousands of such teams across the nation that collectively serve as a bedrock of American democracy. These teams need nearly two million citizen volunteers in order to function properly; today, however, there is a shortage of 500,000 poll workers nationwide and the average poll worker’s age is 72.

 

At a time when “democracy” is being promoted across the globe, I think it is vital to look beyond the headlines, past the manufactured glitz and tabloid hype of political campaigns, and take a look—a real hard look—at what it takes to sustain our own democracy. In the words of Robert Maynard Hutchins: “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush.  It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment.” I hope By the People will inspire citizens to pay attention, to participate, and to never again take our right to vote—our democracy—our government by the people—for granted.

                                                                                                 Malindi Fickle, Director

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