Getting ready to wreck the vote

  Let's just get this out of the way: As a nerd, and an overly opinionated one at that, Election Day -- not Thanksgiving -- has always been my favorite "holiday." Some kids couldn't wait to turn 16 and drive; I couldn't wait to turn 18 and vote. Simply put, I'm a maniac for democracy.

That said, I've had a heavy heart for the last three years. And, as the clock ticks down to Election Day 2004, I'm as nervous as I was the first time I walked into a voting booth, fearing I might inadvertently vote for a Republican.

In the year leading up to the 2000 presidential election, I was elated (and not only when I heard a report in November 1999 that George W. Bush had almost been nudged by a garbage truck while jogging): This was democracy in action. Even though he didn't win the GOP nomination, John McCain had electrified voters in New Hampshire. Ralph Nader was trying to elbow his way into the presidential debates. Speaking to certain crowds, Al Gore would even remind voters of his pro-environmental book, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit.

My 20- and 30-something friends and I were constantly arguing over the issues and debating the candidate's strengths and weakness. Over cocktails, coffee or laundry, we were actively engaging in the democratic process: Who would vote for Nader? Was Gore just a Republican in a Democrat's sweater-vest? Who would take Bush seriously enough to actually vote for him? The guy was not only a bad businessman and stay-at-home soldier, he wasn't even a Texas cowboy. He was a spoiled kid from Connecticut, whose dad ran the CIA and then the country.

This was it, I thought. The time was finally ripe in American politics for people to discuss the economy, the environment, responsible foreign policy and humane domestic policy. The time was even ripe, it seemed, for third party candidates.

Looking back, I remember Election Day 2000 so clearly. I remember talking to a woman in a parking lot with a "Nader/LaDuke" bumper sticker on her car. Strangers, we embraced and yapped about the race, hoping we Greens would get our coveted 5 percent of the national vote, and be eligible for public campaign funds. Living in New Mexico, a Green-heavy state, I was delirious. Now, this was an election, I thought. When I fell asleep to National Public Radio around midnight, I felt the same thrill as a child on Christmas Eve: I couldn't wait to wake to the election results. The next morning, there was mass media confusion, and I found the anticipation thrilling. True democracy in action, I thought.

Then everything fell apart. There's really no use rehashing it all: The feeble attempts at recounts, Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris, hanging chads, African Americans turned away from the polls in Florida, the Supreme Court decision, then the New York Times recount which showed Gore would have won.

I listened to George W. Bush's inauguration and sat on my living room floor in tears. Not because Nader didn't get 5 percent of the vote. Not because Gore didn't fight for a recount. Not even because Bush was being sworn in as the next president of the United States. I was in tears because no one was talking about democracy. I had lost my faith in voting -- the process, the machines, the fairness of one vote for every American. I wept that morning because it felt like democracy had been aborted from American politics.

I've spent the last three years, stunned by what has happened: That Democrats have blamed Nader for Gore's lack of tenure at the White House. That George W. Bush is not only dismantling 30 years of environmental laws but also sacrificing American soldiers and Iraqi civilians in the name of oil. That Paul Wellstone is dead. That Greens are bickering. That in a post-September 11 world, most Democrats blindly backed Bush and supported a war in Iraq.

Now, when leaders of the Democratic Party hint that support for outspoken candidates such as Howard Dean or Dennis Kucinich will only lead to Bush's re-election, I have little patience. If the Democratic party hopes to be relevant again someday, they need to stop telling Americans who to vote against, and start giving us a reason to vote for someone.

But most of all, I'm stunned that, for the first time ever, I'm dreading Election Day.

Laura Paskus is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is an assistant editor of the paper in Paonia, Colorado.