David Orr talks about the glue — customs, traditions, a mutual faith in democracy — that made the United States the envy of the world.
Yet, he notes that we are living in dangerous times, where powerful forces are working to undermine our confidence in government and each other.
I telephoned Orr because he served as Cook County Clerk, the chief election officer for suburban Cook County, from 1990 to 2018. This region is sometimes referred to as one of the most politically corrupt in the country.
Remarkably, Orr not only avoided the taint of criminal behavior attached to many in the Chicago City Council when he served as alderman but also managed to retain his reputation as a political reformer. As Cook County clerk, he had no part in regulating Chicago elections, but he was responsible for assuring suburban elections were fairly run and it was rare to hear anyone question his integrity.
In addition to computing vote totals, he used his office to post information on the internet about property tax rates throughout Cook County, data that clearly showed that tax rates were highest in some of the poorest suburbs and lowest in some of the wealthiest. This imbalance historically has been at the heart of our state’s unfair and discriminatory system of public school funding.
As arguments have raged across the nation about voter fraud and the need to change how we hold elections, I have often thought of Orr. He is retired now from public service, but as the founder of Good Government Illinois he continues to wage war against government corruption.
“What’s going on in this country is a war between facts versus fluff,” Orr tells me. “Facts are the things that are real and fluff is what people have come to accept as true because of social media, targeted marketing campaigns, the interference in our election process not only by Russia and other nations, but certain wealthy people who see an advantage in weakening that glue, that stuff, that has always bound our nation together.”
Orr likes to stress that Republicans and Democrats at every level of the election process, nationally and locally, once worked together to make sure massive voter fraud was impossible. There are both Republican and Democratic election judges at polling places, and both Republicans and Democrats on state election boards.
“Now, the real danger is that conservatives are trying to bypass these bipartisan gatekeepers to toss out votes they may not like in places like Atlanta, Pittsburg, and Phoenix, “ Orr said. “Voter suppression efforts are not new. There have always been efforts to suppress the vote of minority groups, especially in the South. But this is different. It is a much larger, orchestrated campaign. Unfortunately, instead of defending the election process, Republicans have sold their souls when it comes to these charges of massive voter fraud.”
In addition, Orr believes there’s “a growing sense among young people especially that an autocracy is better than a democracy.”
Yet, Orr remains an optimist.
“You look at people now lining up for COVID-19 vaccinations, and many of them were people who once believed the conservative propaganda that vaccinations were not needed,” Orr said. “With their lives at stake, the lives of their children, they are beginning to do their own research and seek out the truth.
I wish I could share Orr’s optimism. But I look at news video from around the country of enraged parents shouting and threatening school board members who have imposed mandatory face mask rules for students, and wonder if the national divide can ever be bridged.
“You know, conservatives talk about socialism, but in World War II our government ordered factories to stop making cars and make tanks,” Orr said. “That was a government takeover of business, but people understood the need to work together to win the war and didn’t question what had to be done.
“That’s the sense of unity that made this country great. That’s the glue, the spirit, that holds us all together.”
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