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Three things that matter
Reforming the voting process. Stopping Mitt Romney. Supporting the arts.

IN 2000, the unthinkable happened: we woke up the morning after a presidential election not knowing who won. Guess what? If national voting reform doesn’t take place soon, chances are good it’ll happen again in 2004. And Florida might once again serve as the site of confusion. Its Democratic gubernatorial primary this month was sullied by many of the same controversies that marred the 2000 presidential election: under-trained poll workers who weren’t able to give voters proper instruction and late-opening polls. There was even a new wrinkle this time around: many Floridians apparently didn’t know where their polling places were, since some were relocated to accommodate redrawn precinct boundaries.

Then again, Georgia might prove to be the state that messes up national elections in 2004. That’s where 3.5 percent of all ballots cast in the 2000 presidential election were either uncounted, spoiled, or unmarked. In Florida, by contrast, just 2.9 percent of its ballots in the presidential election were lost. Five states, including Georgia, had higher rates of spoiled ballots in the 2000 presidential election than Florida: Illinois (3.9 percent); North Carolina (3.3 percent); South Carolina (3.4 percent); and Wyoming (3.6 percent). Idaho, at 2.9 percent, had the same rate of spoiled ballots as Florida did.

These statistics are from "Voting: What Is, What Could Be," a July 2001 report issued by the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Fun fact: nearly one in 10 votes in Chicago during the 2000 election wasn’t counted.) Sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation, the two schools appointed a panel of computer scientists, mechanical engineers, and social scientists to study the 2000 presidential election and issue ideas for national reform. The panel estimates that between four and six million votes in the presidential election were lost. Approximately 1.5 to two million of these votes were lost to faulty equipment or confusing ballots. Another 1.5 to three million were lost due to voter-registration foul-ups. And another one million were lost because of polling-place problems such as long lines.

In the wake of the 2000 voting debacle, the House of Representatives and the US Senate each passed versions of a federal voting-reform act that would set national standards for voting equipment, registration, and poll procedures. The measure has since been mired in bipartisan squabbling in a House-Senate conference committee.

Florida’s primary embarrassment, which prompted Florida governor Jeb Bush to ask the US Justice Department for help in running its statewide general election in November, should be the national wake-up call for reform that the 2000 presidential election apparently wasn’t.

Democrat Shannon O’Brien and Republican Mitt Romney had their much-anticipated first gubernatorial debate Tuesday night. And what a show of contrasts it was. On a subliminal level, Romney was an arch-Reaganite, subtly conveying the idea that government is bad — a questionable notion in a democracy. On the other hand, O’Brien — hardly a wild-eyed liberal — clearly believes government can be a positive force.

Aside from the usual mudslinging and contrasting points of view over taxes, one telling issue illustrated the stark contrast between the candidates. It’s an important policy concern, but not one with any sexy overtones: dealing with regional transportation issues, including those that are not solved by the Big Dig, and which in some cases may even be exacerbated by project.

O’Brien wants to call a transportation summit to deal with shortfalls in public transportation. Should the Blue Line be extended to the North Shore? she asked. Should train service be extended to Worcester? she asked. These ideas make clear that O’Brien is interested in crafting thoughtful policies with long-term effects. As for Romney, well, he wants to erect giant shields around highway work sites and car accidents to deal with the problem of "rubber-necking" that slows down commuter traffic. A gimmick if there ever was one: Massachusetts motorists would probably spend more time "rubber-necking" at the barriers than they do now at the accidents.

Government should be about making a difference, not coming up with cute ploys. If anyone is wondering about the difference between O’Brien and Romney, that brief exchange the other night tells much.

The Boston Phoenix’s Pulitzer Prize–winning classical-music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, has a message for legislators who think cutting arts funding is an easy way to save money: open your eyes! Approximately 135,000 people turned out for Boston Lyric Opera’s two performances of Carmen on the Boston Common last weekend. The crowd was diverse in ethnicity and age, as Schwartz reports on page 18 of this week’s Arts section. More impressive, though, was that the crowd was wildly enthusiastic. "Will people unfamiliar with opera now think of it as a great art form? Unlikely," Schwartz writes. "But would 100,000 people come back for another free performance next year? It would probably take a blizzard or a tidal wave to keep them away."

The Lyric’s dramatic and triumphant performance underlies the importance of the arts to the soul of a community. The aesthetic experience draws people together. In 1968, one day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., riots spread across the country. Boston city councilor Thomas Atkins and mayor Kevin White persuaded WEB to broadcast a James Brown concert scheduled that night at the Boston Garden live. The station pulled it off on just six hours’ notice and rebroadcast the show twice. As Basic Black’s online archive notes, White later credited "the broadcasts with contributing ‘as much as any other event to the atmosphere of conciliation’ that prevailed in Boston." More recently, we saw thousands seek solace in museums across the country that were opened free to the public in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Four years ago, when the economic boom was still booming, we wrote in this space: "If there is another economic downturn, there is every reason to think the arts will, again, be savaged." We were right. This year’s budget cuts hit the Massachusetts Cultural Council hard. Sixty-two percent of its already meager state funding was slashed.

But such cuts are shortsighted. Putting on a show like the one the Lyric just staged on the Common takes money — and lots of it. In fact, the event was three years in the making. It’s hard to estimate what the event brought to the city in terms of dollars spent, but we can be sure it’s more than what city businesses would have seen without the Lyric’s event. An oft-cited 2000 study by the New England Council noted that cultural tourism brings in $6.6 billion annually.

It’s a bitter irony that as the city involves itself in the refurbishment of four theater spaces — the Opera House, the Boston Center for the Arts, the Modern, and the Paramount — city and state funding to local groups that would utilize these spaces (well, at least BCA, Modern, and Paramount) is being slashed to the bone.

Whether art holds a community together, as it did that horrible night 34 years ago and that horrible day just one year ago, or helps a community celebrate just for the sake of it, as it did last weekend, one thing’s clear: art matters.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters[a]

Issue Date: September 26 - October 3, 2002
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