elections are questionable, so is democratic process
November 3, 2002
Perhaps last week you saw a video capturing some 235
Haitians jumping off a boat near Key Biscayne and swimming madly to
shore. I didn't have the audio up, so I just figured they had come
to monitor our elections.
Now typically, when America sends its own
agents of pious Democracy into underdeveloped countries to ensure
electoral integrity (no snickering), it's just Jimmy Carter and a
modest band of idealists. As for electoral integrity in the
overdeveloped country we call home, well, it's going to get a real
torture test this Tuesday. Or, more likely, this Wednesday or
Thursday. Tuesday is merely Election Day. Wednesday is Legal Filings
Day. Thursday is Recount Day. Then Countersuit Friday. By next
weekend, we'll know less about the direction of congressional power
than we did last weekend.
Since the disgraceful national "election"
of 2000, Florida has spent $50 million trying to redeem its voting
process. Now armed guards will pick up completed ballots. That's
reassuring? Georgia spent $58 million on new touch-screen voting,
which is supposed to remedy a system that failed to count more than
90,000 votes in the last presidential election. The federal
government will spend $4 billion in the next three years, according
to a bill signed this week by President Bush, but most of its
provisions don't apply to this election.
Funny how Bush got around
to it this week after making barely a peep about the problem since a
two-fisted political atrocity delivered him to Washington in
A national election in 2002 America is essentially
an open sore, festering from fundamental centuries-old design flaws,
misunderstood and misapplied technologies and advanced cheating.
There is no elixir for all that. There are merely ideas that have
to be aired by people without agendas, people who can make sense of
it. I spoke with one such person this week, Rob Richie, executive
director at the Center for Voting and Democracy in Takoma Park, Md.
"We're in a climate right now where we're seeing a lot of changes,"
Richie said. "All a runoff system needs is a sensible ballot design.
In Ireland, for example, they've just gone to a touch-screen system,
and there are very low rates of error in Ireland, even though rates
of literacy are about the same as ours."
The current project and
the hoped-for partial fix offered by the Center for Voting and
Democracy support the instant runoff system. Voters make a first
choice and a second choice in a framework that allows third- and
fourth party candidates to compete without becoming spoilers.
the system been in place in 2000, the 2,858,843 people who voted for
Green Party candidate Ralph Nader would have been required to
designate a second choice. Ninety percent of those votes would have
gone to Al Gore, in this case, because Nader didn't win. When your
first choice doesn't win, your second choice gets the vote. But more
important, the entire tenor of the modern political campaign would
"Particularly in the case of swing voters, there are
positive consequences," Richie said. "There are always a few core
issues that separate candidates in the two-party system, but most of
the campaign is geared at swing voters, and both candidates know
exactly whom they have to appeal to."
In a letter published last
week, John Anderson, who took 7 percent of the vote in the
presidential election of 1980 (nearly enough to have sustained the
Carter administration had Anderson just gone away), outlined the
problem. In the two-party winner-take-all format now in place, the
winner must be all things to the highest percentage of voters. With
modern marketing technologies, campaigns are thus reduced to
"poll-driven sound bites, negative attacks and avoidance of
Thus Gore, who has strong anti-gun positions,
all but avoided the issue in the 2000 campaign. Had he bothered to
explain himself, he might have won in his home state of Tennessee,
where the National Rifle Association scalded him on it and
effectively cost him the White House.
An instant runoff system
would be a start at meaningful reform, but there is so far to go. I
don't think even 235 Haitians could sort out what's going down