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