CHAUTAUQUA - One of the many functions of the arts is to point out to us a situation and attempt to impress upon us its urgency.
The lectures this week at the Chautauqua Institution are focused on the topic of ''Restoring Legitimacy to our Election System.'' In a democratic republic, such as we enjoy, there is no more important issue than the legitimacy of elections, yet when I've told people the week's theme, it isn't unusual that they reply, ''Why? What's wrong with it?''
Doing their share to advance the week's topic, the Chautauqua Cinema showed a newly created documentary film titled ''Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections.'' They also invited the filmmaker to attend all three showings and hold question-and-answer sessions following each showing.
Filmmaker David Earnhardt is shown with Congressman John Conyers, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee’s investigation into irregularities in the 2004 presidential election.
''Uncounted'' is the work of David Earnhardt. His focus is on the elections of 2000 and 2004, but his central theme is his belief that the increasing computerization of voting has enhanced a thousand-fold the ability of dishonest officials to render null and void, votes which aren't in support of the candidates the officials support.
Taking a methodic approach which demonstrates the public statements of the individuals involved, he made a powerful case for his critically important claims.
The electoral college and the 2000 election
In 2000, then-Vice President Al Gore ran for the presidency against George W. Bush, who was then governor of Texas. In the end, Gore received nearly 500,000 more votes than his opponent, yet Bush was declared winner.
Most Americans are aware of this, and that there was a dispute over the vote in Florida which involved the U.S. Supreme Court, but typically they don't really have a grasp on what happened.
That election was the fourth time in history that the candidate with the most votes did not, in fact, win the election. In part, the reason was the electoral college.
The U.S. Constitution allows each state to determine how it will choose members of the electoral college. The number of electoral votes each state may cast is equal to the number of representatives that state may send to the House of Representatives, plus two, for the two senators each state is allotted.
In most states, the candidate who gets the most votes in that state receives 100 percent of the state's electoral votes. Therefore, if a candidate carries some states with a huge majority and loses some states with only a few votes fewer than his opponent, he can win the popular vote, but lose the electoral vote, and that is what decides the election.
In Florida, the governor of the state was the brother of candidate Bush, and the secretary of state, whose job it was to count the votes and certify the election, was co-chairman of the state's Bush campaign.
When the results from Florida's various election districts began to be announced, a public outcry began immediately. It was determined that machine scoring of votes had rejected a very large percentage of ballots, rendering them null and void. The Florida Supreme Court ordered that the ballots in disputed districts be counted by hand, to be certain of accuracy, but the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that the hand counting be stopped, and that the machine scores be accepted, despite the many challenges.
Earnhardt's film touches on the curious voting situation in Florida, but goes on to cite more than 30 ways in which thousands upon thousands of voters were robbed of their votes, not just in Florida but across the nation.
Some polling places which typically had 14 voting machines were issued only two machines for the presidential election. One of those machines was broken down for more than two hours. Voters who showed up to vote had to stand in line for as much as nine hours or more. In some places, local governments began towing away vehicles which were parked more than a minimum time, but agreed not to tow the car if the voter would drive away.
Some voters were interviewed who had voted in the 2000 presidential primary, but whose names were not on the rolls when they showed up to vote for president.
Official-looking leaflets were distributed by the thousands in some areas, advising voters who were registered as Republicans to vote on the first Tuesday in November, and voters who were registered in any other party to vote on the first Wednesday of November, which meant they showed up to find the election was over.
Polling places scheduled to open at 6:30 a.m., so voters could cast their ballots before they needed to be at work, failed to open until after 8:30 a.m., by which time many voters had to leave to be at work or in class.
These are just a few of the problems which the film demonstrates to have occurred with that election.
Ohio in 2004
In 2004, President Bush ran for re-election, challenged by Democratic Sen. John Kerry. Again, the vote was very close, and was decided by the results in a single state: this time, Ohio.
The film demonstrated press reports that one election district in Ohio cast a total of 636 votes on election day 2004, and contributed more than 4,000 votes for the president's re-election.
Another woman was interviewed who said the results from her district showed no votes for anyone other than the two principal candidates, yet she had voted for the Green Party candidate and she knew of others who said they had done so.
Exit polls were conducted, in which people hired by the major news organizations stand outside the polling places and ask voters to tell them how they voted. Naturally, some people refuse to divulge their vote and others might lie, for whatever reason. Still, the exit polls have been taken since 1980, and typically they come within 1 to 3 percent of the actual count of votes.
Exit polls throughout the country showed that Kerry had won the election, yet when compared with the announced results, Bush had gained, and Kerry had lost, an additional 6.7 percent of the nation's votes.
Underpolling was a significant issue for the first time, according to the film. Underpolling occurs when a voter casts a ballot but fails to vote in one or more races. It's fairly rare that voters go to the polls and vote for governor or other races but fail to vote for president.
Some districts in 2004 showed that 80 percent of voters had not voted in the presidential race. One can agree or disagree with the film's claims, but it does challenge belief that more than three quarters of the voters chose to express no opinion in the presidential race.
Earnhardt and his film claim that elections in our country are won by fraud. His film is well made, full of statistics, and very winning.
If there is substantial doubt that votes are being correctly recorded, the government must take action to restore the country's faith. If our elections do not award power and success to the candidates and issues chosen by the voters, our entire way of life is threatened, and the men and women who have died for our freedom have died in vain.
There are certainly people who would challenge the film's fairness and its accuracy. If the Bush administration has a response to the film's claims, for example, that response was certainly not presented.
A good deal of the film was spent on the ease with which computerized voting can be used fraudulently. They demonstrate a voting booth, set up for an election between John Doe and Mary Smith. The demonstrator casts a vote for John Doe. The poll supervisor's switch is then activated to record the election's results. The computer reports only one vote, and that for Ms. Smith.
A young man named Clint Curtis is introduced, and shown giving sworn testimony before a Congressional hearing on the fairness of the 2004 election. Curtis claims he was an employee of Yang Enterprises in Tallahassee, Fla.
He claims he was approached by Tom Feeney, then a Florida state senator in charge of the state's electoral commission, and now in his second term as congressman from Florida. He alleges that Feeney requested that he create a program which could cause a computerized voting booth to alter the results of the election.
He demonstrates a voting machine which displays a total giving one candidate a healthy margin. He touches first the letter ''R,'' and then the letter ''S,'' in the word ''President,'' at the top of the screen, and suddenly the numbers change, keeping the same number of votes, but changing which candidate got the majority of votes. One voter entering the booth near closing time for the polls could change the vote, and voting inspectors would have no reason to question the results.
He claims that he thought Feeney was looking to demonstrate the ease of fraud and restore accuracy, but learned that his invention was intended to commit fraud in the 2004 election.
Problems are reported with Curtis's claims, including that the voting fraud was intended for Palm Beach County, where some of the major protests from the 2000 election took place. In 2004, that county did not use computerized voting, and could not have been affected by Curtis's alleged computer program.
Nonetheless, the excellent point is made that our nation has ATM machines. Those machines record transactions and give a paper receipt, which could be used to challenge transactions which the consumer believes are inaccurate.
Computerized voting machines are made by corporations which also make ATM machines, yet they give no printed receipt. The film shows a machine which gives the voter a card, printed with his votes. If it is accurate, the voter could then deposit the card in a ballot box, and if the election was challenged, there would be an easily counted proof of how voters had actually chosen.
The film claims not one state has adopted the machines which give a paper affirmation of the vote.
Since long before our country came legally into existence, back when the British crown was in charge, there have been voter frauds and accusations of voter frauds. Both parties have committed offenses, beyond any doubt. But we must not send a message to our leaders that we don't care about voter fraud. The most frightening thing about the entire issue has been the media's repeated ignoring of the issue. Send that message, and we might as well give up voting altogether.
So, impressive as it is, ''Uncounted'' may or may not be accurate. Whether it is, the issue of voter fraud is a critical one, and one which citizens must impress upon our government as the most important issue of all.
The Chautauqua Cinema
A word is in order about the Chautauqua Cinema, which hosted this most challenging cinema. The theater is located behind and to the right of Norton Hall, the institution's opera house. The building is officially Higgins Hall, built in 1895. The hall was originally an education building, which once housed a breakfast at which the guest of honor was Theodore Roosevelt.
According to the cinema's Web site, www.uniplexcinemas.com, from 1916 until 1938 the institution itself showed films there. From 1938 until 1956, it was operated by Joe and Margaret Woodburn, and in 1956 it was sold to Robert Schmidt.
He was a teacher in Mayville who had worked out the unpaid summer months for teachers as projectionist for the cinema. Schmidt installed CinemaScope equipment, which made it possible to show even the latest commercial films, and the Schmidt family remodeled the building, adding air conditioning, restrooms and other important upgrades.
In the early 1980s, Schmidt died, and his son Paul Schmidt, a teacher with Jamestown Public Schools, became the official ''Movie Guy.'' He expanded to showing films outside the Chautauqua season, in Jamestown at the Reg Lenna Civic Center, in Fredonia at the 1891 Opera House, and in Warren at the Struthers Library Theatre.
Recently, Uniplex Cinemas Inc. has given up the films in Jamestown and Fredonia, in both of which the housing theater has installed a film series. Uniplex has opened a two-screen facility in Bradford.
In 2008, Paul Schmidt sold the Chautauqua Cinema to his son Bill, who has come with his family from California to operate the facility.
Considering the quality of films which are shown and the many opportunities to meet filmmakers and other people associated with the film industry, let us hope that the Schmidt touch remains with us for generations to come.