January 12, 2008
Remembering ‘Being There’ … or why Chauncey Gardener could not vote in today’s America
I have fond memories of the 1979 movie “Being There” starring Peter Sellers. It is a skillful dissection of politics and power where the audience is “in” on the joke from the beginning.
For those who aren’t familiar with this last Peter Sellers flick here’s a brief synopsis: the story revolves around Chance, a simple gardener who has spent his entire life with “the old man” in a big house where he tends the garden and watches TV. After the death of “the old man,” Chance, is evicted and wanders the streets of Washington D.C. where he encounters Rand, a wealthy business man. Rand takes Chance under his wing. Through a series of mis-understandings, Chance becomes known as Chauncey Gardener, whose utterances about gardening are interpreted as evidence of deep wisdom and understanding. Chauncey becomes a media darling who is touted by political power brokers to become the next president
So what does this movie have to do with politics today? Nothing, really — except that it illustrates the role of the media and political spinmeisters in creating a political candidate.
However, it also provides an interesting frame for thinking about citizenship and the demand for Real ID at every turn in our daily lives, including the vote in some states.
Chauncey Gardener could not circulate in Washington D.C. today without producing ID — a driver’s license, birth certificate, passport, and/or Social Security card. He certainly would not be allowed to vote in many states. Yet the character in this film was born and grew up in the U.S. and would presumably be a citizen. Yet in states like Indiana with strict ID requirements he would not be permitted to register to vote much less cast a ballot. He might end up with a placebo provisional ballot that won’t get counted anyway. As Americans, we have come a long way from the world of 1979 where a character like Chance/Chauncey could plausibly enter the White House without showing ID and undergoing a background check.
Many of those promoting voter ID requirements use examples of renting a video or boarding a commercial airliner as evidence that Americans are asked to present ID all the time — and do so as a matter of course. But this country did not fight two world wars to defend the right of Americans to rent a video. Nor did Martin Luther King Jr. lead marches for the right to take off his shoes at security checkpoints in airports.
The right to vote is sacred. Soldiers have defended the right to vote and other essential American freedoms on distant shores, sometimes to the point of giving their lives in service to their country. Let’s not trivialize the most basic right of citizenship by comparing it to renting the latest mega-hit at Blockbuster.
Furthermore, when you stop and think about it, there are many honest American citizens who just might not have the kind of ID demanded by Indiana. There are many circumstances that would leave a legitimate voter without the kind of ID required in the Indiana law:
1. Victims of natural disasters like hurricane Katrina, recent California wildfires, tornados, floods. These folks not only lost their homes but in some cases like Katrina, the courthouses where the official records are kept.
2. In many urban areas like New York City people do not own a car and do not drive. They take a cab or the subway to get where they need to go. A friend of mine in NYC recently told his college age son that he would not help him get a drivers license because he would not need one in the city.
3. Many court houses have burned down or been damaged by flooding so that when folks try to get a copy of their official birth certificate they find out that the records were destroyed.
4. Many people, particularly older voters, were born at home and no birth certificate was ever recorded.
5. Anybody who has ever had their wallet or purse stolen will have lost their ID. If this occurs right before election day they will be out of luck.
The problem is that it takes ID to get ID. The insistence on certain forms of ID like birth certificates rather than, for instance, marriage certificates giving age and place of birth, property tax records, utility bills or military records makes proving identity and obtaining ID much more difficult.
When the EAC studied the issue of voter fraud at the polls, they found only a handful of cases nationwide that were prosecuted. None of those cases was in Indiana so there is no compelling reason why up to 10 per cent of Indiana voters should be disenfranchised in an effort to solve a non-existent problem in that state.
So as the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of Indiana’ voter ID law, take a moment to remember the situation of Chance/Chauncey in “Being There.” As a country, should we be broadening the franchise and welcoming more voters to polls? Or should we be placing unnecessary roadblocks in the way that prevent legitimate citizens from casting a ballot?
My preference would be to bring as many into the process as possible — even the Chance/Chauncey Gardener types without perfect ID in their pocket.