Thursday September 7, 2006Observer.co.uk
One person, one vote. Count the totals. The one with the most wins. The beauty of democracy is its simplicity and its inherent fairness. It equalises everyone, even as it empowers everyone. What could go wrong? In America, it turns out, quite a lot.
Everyone remembers the debacle in Florida, 2000. The recounts, the law suits and the eventual deciding of a presidential election - not by the voters - but by the Supreme Court. The memory still causes a collective shudder to America's body politic.
Which makes the fact that America's system of voting is now even more suspect, more complicated, and more open to abuse than ever before so utterly shocking. Across the country a bewildering series of scandals or dubious practises are proliferating beyond control. The prospect of a 'second Florida' is now more likely not less. There are many - and not all of them are conspiracy theorists - who believed it may have happened in Ohio in 2004.
This week the venerable New York Times was the latest of many organisations and institutions to declare that America's democratic system is simply starting to fail. Not in terms of its democratic ideals, or some takeover by a Neocon cabal, but by a simple collapse in its ability to count everyone's votes accurately and fairly. The Times is editorialising on a shocking government report into electoral rules in Ohio's biggest county, Cuyahoga, which contains the city of Cleveland. It details a litany of errors and a large discrepancy between the paper record of a ballot and the result recorded by the new Diebold electronic voting machines the county has just installed. It also worried that 31 per cent of black people were asked for identification as they voted compared to 18 per cent of other voters. '[The] report should be a wake-up call to states and counties nationwide,' the paper thundered.
But Ohio is far from isolated. The problem is simply that America has no national standard for tallying the votes in its elections. Apart from a few federal mandates to safeguard broad constitutional rights, it is left up to local officials to sort out the details on the ground. This means in one state a machine might be used. In others a simple paper ballot and a pen. Or it varies from county to county. In one small town a touch screen machine might be on hand, a few miles away other voters might use a punch ballot and in the next county after that you might use a pen. Or pull a lever. Or countless other complex ways to do what should be so, so simple. It also means in one place there is a solid (paper) record of a vote that can be recounted, while in others, it is all down to famously fallible machines and their electronic memories.
In some places you can't vote if you have a prison record. In others, you can. In some states you need identification to vote. In others you don't. In some a drivers' licence will be enough, in others it won't. All this is fundamentally a violation of the basic genius of democracy: it should be simple and uniform. In America that is simply not true.
Then there is another layer of trouble. Because elections are organised locally they are often run and controlled by state office holders or county level election supervisors. Often these officials are nakedly partisan and all too willing to use the power of that office to favour one party over another. Their county or state is, after all, their patch of turf and they seek to protect it for their side.
Then you add a large dose of dirty tricks that are again all too common at a local level in US politics. Forget Ohio or Florida. Just look at Milwaukee where mysterious fliers appeared in 2004 in a black neighbourhood informing residents that all felons and their relatives - even those guilty of traffic violations - could not vote. Or an election in New Hampshire in 2002 where senior state Republicans hired a firm to jam the Democrats phone bank system. Three people are now in jail due to that little escapade. Similar examples of other abuses can be found all over the country.
Now I am not a conspiracy theorist. I don't believe that there is a cunning secret plan, set out in detail beforehand and then masterfully carried out to deliberately steal presidential elections. In fact, you don't actually need a shadowy plot to get much the same effect.
There is little doubt that at a grassroots level America's election is in disarray and being abused. And at a time of narrow election victories where presidential races come down to a single state (Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004) a microscope is instantly cast on that state's electoral practises. And lo, they are found wanting. Or open to fraud. Or being abused. Or local groups (from both sides) are going hell for leather to keep the other side from the polls. This is not because this is being planned out of Washington and targeted into those key states. It is because it is actually happening all over the country. We just notice because it has come down to the wire at that particular state.
You don't need to be a conspiracy theorist to be seriously worried about this state of affairs. In many ways, it is more worrying that the system is not being deliberately stolen from on high. It is actually broken from the ground up.