Lingering questions | October 13, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - October 13, 2006

Lingering questions

Local filmmakers explore concerns about 2004 election

by Rebecca Wallace

Two documentary filmmakers knew a good story when they saw it: the 2004 presidential election and the allegations of impropriety hovering over it like a thundercloud. But that's where their paths diverged.

Pam Walton of Mountain View zoomed in close, focusing on a small group of activists. Meanwhile, Menlo Park filmmaker Dorothy Fadiman and her crew took a wide-angle view. They traveled around the country to interview Ohio voters, politicians, computer-security analysts, and others. The team is still doing research to expand the film.

Both movies cross paths again this month -- each is scheduled to screen in Palo Alto. Fadiman's "Stealing America: One Vote at a Time" has its local premiere at the Cubberley Theatre this Sunday, while Walton's "Grassroots: Contesting Ohio" screens at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto on Oct. 21.

After President George W. Bush won re-election over U.S. Sen. John Kerry in 2004, many allegations surfaced. There were stories from people who said they had to wait hours to vote. There were concerns about exit polls being significantly different from final vote tallies. And many criticized the electronic voting machines, saying sometimes votes switched from one candidate to another or simply weren't counted.

Some dismissed the charges as paranoid or exaggerated. Others made counter-arguments, such as a pollster who said Kerry voters were more likely to take part in exit polls than those voting for Bush.

But Fadiman's curiosity -- and concern -- was piqued by the reports of "vote switching." A longtime filmmaker who has made movies on such topics as reproductive rights and HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia, she volunteered at the 2004 polls in Florida. While there, she heard stories of people pushing a button on the voting machine to vote for Kerry and suddenly having their vote switch over to Bush.

"When I came home . . . everyone on the plane had stories from south Florida. I thought, 'That would make a really interesting movie,'" Fadiman says during an interview in her home studio, which is buzzing with activity. Members of her team are editing film, making phone calls and organizing screenings and mailings of the "Stealing America" DVD.

In the research done by Fadiman and her team, they found "major irregularities across the country," the great majority in favor of Bush, Fadiman said.

The 70-minute film includes a powerfully repetitive section on "vote switching," in which a string of people say voting machines switched their votes from Kerry to Bush. Many are Ohio voters.

"I pressed for Kerry and got Bush," community activist Elizabeth Jarof is shown saying. Several others echo her, including Ohio State Sen. Bob Hagan, a Democrat.

Fadiman and Luotto took road trips to many locations for interviews and research; in fact, the bulk of the film's budget -- which Fadiman says is "more than $100,000" -- went to travel and staff costs.

They also interviewed people who stood in long snaking lines, often in the rain, to vote. In the film, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says on CNN that the average wait time to vote in Ohio was three-and-a-half hours for black inner-city residents but only 18 minutes for white suburban residents.

There are also sections devoted to the technology of the voting machines: How reliable are they? Could they be manipulated on a grand scale?

"I thought I understood the situation, and I set out to document it. What was so revealing and shocking was how subtle it was," Fadiman says. "So much was wrong, and the mainstream media turned their backs."

(Both Fadiman and Walton include footage from Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, saying he was one of the only mainstream television hosts to address the charges.)

Many might describe Fadiman's film as liberal. She says she tried to make it as balanced as possible.

For example, the film delves into whether the Democrats also were reluctant to address the charges. It shows State Sen. Hagan saying that after his vote was flipped from Kerry to Bush, he called the Kerry campaign to warn them. But, he says, the Kerry campaign told him not to talk about it.

Why would this happen? Fadiman says, "I've heard some say they (the Democrats) don't want to be seen as sore losers."

The film also includes interviews with Republicans: former U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey; Chuck Herrin, who's in computer security, auditing and risk management; and others.

"The facts are quite partisan. My task was to balance them," Fadiman says. "People are hungry for the truth when it's not an assault."

There's a sense of sadness through much of Fadiman's film, a disappointment all the greater because the election had had such high voter turnout.

For producer/director Pam Walton, that disillusionment was the catalyst for making her 30-minute film. She and her associate director and life partner, Ruth Carranza -- who both sport anti-Bush stickers on their cars and worked on the Kerry campaign -- wanted to channel their post-election frustration.

"Making films is a wonderful way to work that out," Carranza says on the couple's sunny patio as their two black pugs befriend a visiting reporter.

About a week after the election, the two went to a meeting at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, where people had gathered to vent, Walton said. She and Carranza were inspired to focus on one group of concerned citizens, to show what action could be taken at the grassroots level.

As a result, where Fadiman's film feels broad-based and fact-focused, Walton's seems intimate and accessible. Each can persuade in its own way.

Walton chuckles when asked about her approach, saying, "We had no choice in a way, because we had no money."

The budget consisted of about $5,000 of her own money, she estimates.

"Grassroots" begins with footage of Kerry conceding the race and soon focuses on a group of Bay Area residents painting protest signs. The small coalition, which includes lawyers, teachers and computer workers, is trying to influence the ratification of the 2004 electoral-college vote. They stage demonstrations, give speeches and meet with U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer's aides in hopes of convincing her to stand up in the Senate and oppose Ohio's electoral votes.

Boxer ultimately became the only senator to do so, but no one knew that beforehand, and so there's a sense of tension as the group prepares.

"We're numerous, but we're little guys," one man says amidst the sign-painting.

Later, the group demonstrates outside Boxer's office. One woman who had helped at the Ohio polls speaks of voters standing on line for six or seven hours.

"We were bringing chairs, food," she says. "In one African-American church, people were still in line at midnight."

Walton remarks later, "These activists really went after Boxer."

Although they were thrilled with Boxer's stance, "We don't know how much of an effect they had," she adds.

This film was a change of pace for Walton and Carranza. Walton, a former teacher at Woodside High School, left teaching in 1988 to concentrate on filmmaking. Her projects typically cover gay and lesbian issues such as gays and lesbians on the pulpit. Carranza makes science films, including a whole series on the microchip.

What's the next step for "Grassroots"? Walton is submitting it to various film festivals, including Cinequest in San Jose. She also hopes to offer it to the League of Women Voters and other groups, who might be able to use it as an organizing tool.

"What can a handful of people do?" she asks rhetorically. Her film gives a visual example.

In contrast, Fadiman's film closes with specific actions people can take, such as organizing a town meeting and joining with others to challenge election practices in court (she lists several successful cases). All these actions can be done in groups, and that's purposeful, she says.

"The film is to give people the sense that something profoundly irregular happened," she says, but adds, "I want to give people a sense of community and moving forward."

What: Local screenings of "Stealing America: One Vote at a Time" and "Grassroots: Contesting Ohio," two films dealing with the 2004 election

Where and when: "Stealing America" will be shown at the Cubberley Theatre at 4000 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto at 7:30 p.m. this Sunday. "Grassroots" will be screened Oct. 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto at 505 E. Charleston Road. The Raging Grannies are scheduled to perform, and Palo Alto City Councilman Peter Drekmeier is expected to speak.

Cost: The Sunday screening of "Stealing America" is free. The "Grassroots" event is a fundraiser to benefit election reform; there is a $5-$10 suggested donation.

Info: Fadiman says she often runs out of seats at her screenings but that her DVDs will be sold at low prices at the door. For more about Fadiman, go to www.concentric.org. For more about Walton, go to www.pamwaltonproductions.com.

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