Political animosity in America is as old as the Constitution.
Divisiveness and rancor are not traits unique to American politics, either. Humans have learned and relearned how to debate without smashing one another over the head with clubs.
Politics is messy. It will always be a blood sport. Political parties exist to dismantle their enemies. But hope remains that discourse will win the day over destruction.
Last week in Nassau County, there was a moment of collective breath-holding for those who support the rule of law, after a printing company made every active voter in the county a Democrat.
The company, Phoenix Graphics, of Rochester, assured the public the mistake was a printing error, and that no one’s party registration had been changed by the Nassau County Board of Elections. Phoenix promised to fix the error, and print and mail updated voter registration cards to everyone.
County Executive Bruce Blakeman, a Republican, held a news conference anyway, clutching one of the incorrectly printed voter registration cards.
To his credit, Blakeman resisted a rhetoric-filled speech to score political points. It would have been so easy for him to blame Democrats or cast doubts on the June primaries and the November election, especially since this election cycle will be the first with newly redrawn county legislative districts.
Redistricting is a bare-knuckled political process that already causes voter confusion. Blakeman could have added to the confusion and distrust by blaming political enemies. He didn’t.
In fact, Blakeman explicitly said that Democrats weren’t engaged in a conspiracy. He emphasized that the county’s voter rolls were correct. He said there was nothing “nefarious” in the printing error. And he made light of any possible allusion to a conspiracy by saying that it would be nonsensical for Democrats to want Republicans to vote in Democratic primaries.
Pause and reflect for a moment on how significant Blakeman’s actions and words were. He could have made vague accusations, sown doubt and appeared to supporters as a hero battling dark forces.
The era of McCarthyism, the Gilded Age, the Civil War — there have been a number of times in our history when all hope of working with political rivals seemed dead. Our present-day political polarization has been described as among the most divisive in history. The ability to talk respectfully with people who disagree seems all but lost. Gerrymandering and U.S. Supreme Court rulings continue to separate us, and at any time there are a host of wedge issues that prevent reform.
Mention “stolen election” and people reach for pitchforks and torches.
Blakeman may not have scored political points with overzealous conspiracy theorists. Much more important, he sought to calm the electorate and reassure people’s faith in voting and democracy.
Now that he has poured cold water on a potential simmering issue, he and county legislators must focus on continuing to reassure voters that the county’s voting systems are secure. First, the county must investigate how the printing error occurred. Was it caused by an inadvertent keystroke? Did Phoenix check information before printing nearly 1 million copies of the registration cards?
Next, Nassau legislators must adopt a local law that stipulates that vendors are responsible for fixing such errors at no cost to taxpayers, and that vendors submit a statement of accuracy verification prior to publication. Phoenix voluntarily owned up to its mistake and said it would pay to fix it, but county taxpayers shouldn’t have to rely on the goodwill of vendors when they err.
Finally, the county must insist on prior review by a Board of Elections employee, who would examine voter registration cards and give the OK for printing.
Blakeman should hold another news conference with Democratic and Republican legislators before next month’s primary to reassure voters that the voter rolls are correct, and that no party registrations were incorrectly changed.
Partisanship in our country is close to all-time highs. Blakeman deserves credit for resisting an easy layup to score political points. He and the Legislature must, however, work hard in the coming months to reassure voters that their registration information is correct, and that their votes will be accurately counted.