Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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An encounter on the edge of the precinct
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   08/04/2006)

My friend appeared out of nowhere as I left the voting booth and walked outside. Smoking a cigarette, purple circles under bloodshot eyes, unkempt hair, he looked like one still awake after a long night of drinking. We stepped into the shade of the building to talk.

I see from the ink on your index finger you did your patriotic duty, he said.

I glanced at my hand, and my friend laughed. Very funny, I said. Have you voted?

Nope, I'm still deciding.

Which race? Maybe I can help….

You don't unnerstan'. He was slurring his words. What I'm tryin' to decide is whether to vote at all.

Well, just remember, I said, any vote is a vote for democracy.

Bingo. Tha's what I'm tryin' to decide, whether democracy ack-shully works.

I blinked. Churchill said, Democracy is a bad form of government, only all the others are so much worse, I quoted uncertainly.

Time will tell, my friend, time will tell. Democracy unleashes mighty forces, for sure, but if they end up destroyin' the world—or even jus' half of it--then manifestly, democracy don't work.

We won't let that happen. The pendulum swings.

That's assuming the will of the voter prevails. He wagged his cigarette in the air.

What do you mean?

Look at the last two presidential elections. In 2004, Tony Blair goes to bed on election night thinking Kerry will be the next president. Exit polls predicted a substant-shul Kerry win. He hiccupped. That election was rigged, especially in Ohio.

Come off it, I said. You could say the same about 1960--that Kennedy stole the election from Nixon in those Chicago precincts, where even dead people voted.

Your point being? And look at 2000. Gore wins the popular vote by half-a-million, yet a Republican Supreme Court appoints Bush president.

That's because the Electoral College…

Is undemocratic, my friend. Just like the U.S. Senate, where Wyoming holds as much clout as New York. Where Nevada packs as much punch as California. Where the will of the people gets subverted time and again. Polls show a majority of Americans want to do something about global warming, conserving energy, a fair minimum wage, veterans benefits, pulling out of Iraq, and yet we have a president who…

For better or worse won Florida, I interrupted.

So why should Florida wag the dog? Besides, all the post-mortems in 2000 focused on the under-votes, hanging chads and so forth, but a new book shows that had the over-votes been counted--ballots thrown out because they had too many marks--Gore wins Florida by many thousands of votes. Look into it.

I promise I will, I said, but look, no system's perfect….

Perfect? I'd settle for not-embarrassing. Our democracy's become flawed in so many ways, it's toxic. All you have to do to get elected is appeal to the lowest common denominator. Fear of immigrants, Islam, environmentalists, gays, feminists, flag-burners, the Rapture. Tell voters your hero is Jesus and it don't matter if you cuss like a sailor and repeat lies that start wars, or play footsy with Halliburton and suppress the science of global warming. Or take the way we finance our elections… take the race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Bill Frist. Running on the Republican side you have three blind mice—to quote you—none of them even willing to address climate change, probably because they'd lose campaign contributions.

And the front-runner, Bob Corker—the man who'll likely take on Harold Ford Jr. to compete for Frist's seat--got where he is by blowing a wad of personal cash and calling in political favors. The same could be said of Frist and Ford, actually, who also used family influence--and what families! And now we're spreading democracy to the Middle East. What has it done for us there? It's empowered our old enemies the Shi-ites—in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran--who appear hell bent on our destruction. Or is it the other way around. Like I say, if democracy rubber stamps unending warfare, the spread of nukes and global warming, manifes'ly it's a failure.

Then it's our responsibility to make sure that doesn't happen, I said. So vote. It's the best I could come up with on an early Thursday morning. It still is.