Understatement of the Night:
“I want to thank every American who participated in this election … whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time. By the way, we have to fix that.” —President Barack Obama
Now that the election is behind us and we can look forward to another four years of our Kenyan Muslim Socialist Overlord, the temptation is to try to forget those last unpleasant 18 months and move on with our lives, either stepping a bit more lightly if the election went our way, or trying our best to muddle along if it didn’t.
But there’s a bit of unpleasantness we still need to deal with, unless we don’t want to see a repeat of it every two years from now until the end of time (or the Mayan apocalypse, whichever comes first). President Obama hinted at it in his victory speech above, almost as an afterthought, although I’d put money on it being rather front-of-mind for him right now.
It should be. Pundits galore are talking about how right now Obama needs to do this or that: create more jobs, cut the deficit, cut the debt, reform immigration, cut taxes, repair our infrastructure, get back to New Jersey and New York to rebuild.
Aside from that last one (because people still don’t have power, water, food or fuel), all those other issues, while each is important in its own way, cannot be solved without fixing the big one.
Our democracy is broken. (For those who say, “We don’t live in a democracy, we live in a republic, and shouldn’t change,” I say, “Well, you’re part of the problem.”)
It’s not just that there were long lines at the polls. It’s not just that some ballots will inevitably be miscounted. It’s not that voting machine software can be buggy.
It’s all of these things.
It’s that the people who run our elections have an interest in exploiting these problems, and creating them.
And it’s because we, the people, can do nothing about it but shout into the wind of the internet.
You want evidence?
How about this: Florida Republicans were trying to close polls early in heavily Democratic counties.
Or this: Last-minute orders by a partisan-elected Ohio Secretary of State designed to make it difficult for provisional ballots to be cast.
Or this: Last-minute voting machine software changes, also in Ohio, that are neither tested, nor approved, that could have had a very big effect on the tabulation of votes.
Or this: Pennsylvania voting machines that refuse to register a vote for Barack Obama, instead checking the Mitt Romney box.
(For those who say, “Where’s the Democratic fraud?” I say, “Show me the evidence.” And I don’t mean WorldNutDaily or Fox News reports. Fox doesn’t report news, they report fantasy, and that’s never been more on display than last night. Yes, Talking Points Memo is partisan, but they practice journalism while clearly letting you know if they like or dislike what they’re reporting. They report the news as it is, not as they’d want it to be. The fact that their polling estimates were correct and Fox’s were wrong? Case in point. It’s easier to be right when you live and work in the reality-based community.)
By the way, all of these incidents were happening in swing states. What do you think is happening in “safe” districts where no one is watching the polls? Everything runs smoothly when we don’t have election monitors, iPhone cameras, or reporters hanging around? I doubt it.
So, what’s the answer, smartass?
This: It’s time to reform our electoral system, from the ground up. And there are two key components of this.
First: Nationalize the federal elections. Candidates for federal office need to be held to the same standards across the country. The election laws for federal office need to be the same in each of the 50 United States (and D.C. and any other taxed-without-representation territory that sends people to Washington to do the people’s business). And while we’re at it, the federal elections must be run by an independent nonpartisan body, not elected politicians or partisan appointees. Independents: Professional managers who will not see the office as a stepping stone to a political career.
Canada already does this, as do other modern democracies. Why must our race for the presidency be a contest of 50 different votes, each with its own quirks and idiosyncratic laws, so we get hanging chads here, buggy voting machines there, optical scanners here and voice votes there? We Americans love our traditions, but the composition of our federal offices is too important to be left under the auspices of, quite frankly, local yahoos with an agenda. We simply can’t trust them to do their job fairly. Let’s talk about the Florida recount of 2000, the evidence of vote stealing in Ohio in 2004, or yes, dead people voting in Chicago in 1960. Saying, “But Kennedy did it too” doesn’t excuse it, and it doesn’t excuse allowing such a backward, third world banana republic system to continue in the richest and most powerful country in the world.
The second part of the solution is transparency. Naomi Wolf has the right idea here. It’s simple, really. You cast your vote, you get a physical receipt with a unique number. You can then look up that number on the website of the official elections authority (whatever it is) and see, not just that your vote was counted, but that each vote for each candidate or ballot measure was recorded accurately. And what’s more, you can see all the votes, and count them yourself, to see that they add up.
No one knows how you voted except you. Everyone else just sees a bunch of numbers and the individual votes. If you’re that concerned about privacy even then, you can burn your receipt and no one will ever find out. (It’ll make it hard to validate your vote later if you forget your number, however.) Votes will no longer go into a black box, to be tallied by mysterious gnomes in an undisclosed location, and then disappear.
Where I live and vote, Seattle, we are already on the right track. I cast my ballot, and later, I go to the King County Department of Elections’ Ballot Tracker and look it up, and it confirms that my vote was counted. It doesn’t tell me that my votes were counted correctly, and I don’t have any way of finding this out. I have to trust the government. As Ronald Reagan once said, “Trust. But verify.” I’m fairly confident that Seattle is going in this direction, maybe even by the next presidential election.
But there’s no reason why the rest of the country shouldn’t follow suit.
Actually, there is. It’s because our election system is a decentralized hodgepodge of obsolete laws and partisan elected officials whose first thought is to try and wrest any advantage for their team. A broken and corruptible election system works just fine for them. It’s just we, the people, who get screwed. That’s why it needs to be nationalized.
After today, I hope that putting in place reforms—real significant reforms—will be top-of-mind during Obama’s second term, especially since he no longer has to run for office and can afford to take the high road. Congress will be trickier and will probably balk at coming around, but that’s where Obama needs to use his bully pulpit, his momentum and, yes, his mandate, to guide the future of American democracy. We simply can’t afford anything less.
There are two other issues at stake as well, but they are, I think, of slightly lesser importance.
One is the Electoral College. While watching the returns Tuesday evening, I was struck by how much of the minute-by-minute analysis on CNN was focused not just on the swing states, but on counties and precincts. Lake County, Ohio. Nashua, New Hampshire. Prince William County, Virginia. Araphoe and Jefferson Counties, Colorado. One the one hand this is the media’s late acknowledgement of the reality that political handicappers and consultants have known for years: that the battle for the White House will be lost or won in the outer suburban counties of certain cities in certain states. If you didn’t live in one of those counties, your vote didn’t matter. Well, it mattered, but it mattered a lot less than the votes of those people who do live in those counties. One vote in Broward County, Florida carries more weight than ten votes in King County, Washington. That’s not how a democracy should run. The Electoral College should go, along with its antiquated arithmetic of selecting the most powerful person on the planet.
The other is money. Citizens United pulled out all the stops of unregulated campaign cash, and this year it’s estimated that $2 billion was spent by the Obama and Romney campaigns. That’s just the presidential race. There were also the Senate, House and state governorships, tallying who knows how much more. Coupled with the power of lobbyists in Washington, D.C., is it any wonder we see our Congress as the best that money can buy, or that our election system is more about choosing which wealthy representative of the business world will lead us, rather than a real democracy? Suffice to say, that $2 billion could have been put to better use than television advertisements.
For these latter two issues, this goes to the heart of the Constitution, and either would take an Amendment to get into place, or in the very least, a radical shakeup of the Supreme Court that would willingly overturn Citizens United or go after the Electoral College. That might be rather unthinkable right now, but if we can fix our elections system as above—standardizing it and making it transparent—we might just find that other reforms such as the latter two might come a bit easier.
We might just find that governing in general might become a bit easier, as well, and that, no matter your political stripe, should be seen as a good thing.