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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When elections are questionable, so is democratic process
By Gene Collier
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 December 2000.

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.

Had 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 be changed.

"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 important issues."

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 Tuesday.


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Copyright 2002 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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