Bringing Democracy Home (2004)

In Iraq, the Shi’a leader Ayatollah Sistani is refusing to cooperate with the American occupation in its plans for setting up a government. The Americans want to do it with caucuses. The Ayatollah wants direct elections. Normally, in situations like this, I figure the political arrangements of other countries are their own business. But this time, I’m with the Ayatollah, one hundred percent.

In fact, I don’t think he goes far enough. Iraq isn’t the only country that needs direct elections. So does the USA. Especially if we take it on ourselves to liberate other countries and set up their governments. The USA needs a complete reform of our electoral system, and our elections should be monitored by the UN or some other international NGO until we’ve accomplished it.

The Republic for which it stands

Most of us didn’t pay much attention to the Electoral College before 2000. We were vaguely aware that our quadrennial exercise in civic responsibility was not a direct election, that we were really voting for delegates to some mythical beast called the Electoral College rather than for our chosen candidate. The more politically sophisticated among us knew that the Electoral College vote could theoretically elect the candidate who did not get the largest number of popular votes. Hard-core history buffs knew that there was actually at least one occasion when it happened. For the rest of us, the Hayes-Tilden compromise was so esoteric that it never even turned up on quiz shows. We thought of the Electoral College kind of the way one thinks of the old stuffed moose head Grandpa keeps in the attic—someday we really ought to get rid of it, but it’s just harmless clutter. All it does is take up space. We’ve lived with it this long, and it never caused a real problem. Why borrow trouble? Cross that bridge when we come to it.

More about the Hayes-Tilden compromise later. First let’s talk about the 2000 election. Please. Yes, I know we aren’t supposed to talk about it. That’s just beating a dead horse. It shows we’re sore losers, not willing to let bygones be bygones and get on with our political lives. None of the candidates this year are willing to raise the issue of the validity of the 2000 election, or even the question of how we make sure it doesn’t happen again. Before 2000, we didn’t talk about the Electoral College because it couldn’t possibly cause any problems. Now that we know it can and it has, we don’t talk about it because only losers complain.

The 2000 election had several sets of problems. One was the flawed mechanism for voting in many states. Not just Florida. Indeed, Illinois had more miscounted and uncounted votes than Florida, probably more than twice as many. In Illinois it didn’t matter, because an accurate count of the popular vote would not have changed the Electoral College vote from Illinois. The same is probably true of New York. The hanging chads of Florida mattered because the popular vote was so narrowly split that 500+ votes could change the Electoral College outcome.

And that narrow split mattered because of the “winner-takes-all” rule, which prevails in all but a few states. The rule says that the winner of the popular vote in a state, even if s/he wins by a single vote, gets the entire Electoral College delegation of that state.

The “winner-takes-all” rule is not part of the U.S. constitution. It is not part of the constitutions of most states that have it. It is a mere statute, a creature of legislature. It can be repealed at the state level, by the same process used to rename an airport or raise a cigarette tax.

Even without the “winner-takes-all” rule, the Electoral College system gives disproportionate power to smaller states, since the size of a state’s E.C. delegation is determined by the size of its total congressional delegation—both its senators and all of its representatives. Since even Wyoming (with a population smaller than that of most counties in New York, Illinois, or Florida) has two senators and one congressional representative, a citizen of Wyoming has a lot more voting power than a citizen of Illinois (which also has only two senators, along with 19 representatives.)

The 2000 debacle was not the worst possible outcome of the Electoral College system. At least all of the delegates accepted the mandate of the voters who elected them, rather than allowing themselves to be bribed or intimidated into voting for somebody else. At least the election was not thrown into Congress. At least no special commission was formed to sort things out. (That, by the way, is what happened as a result of the 1876 election, the Hayes-Tilden compromise. The electoral vote split close to evenly, and the commission created to resolve the problem worked out a deal in which the Republicans got the White House in exchange for giving the Democrats a free hand to abolish the reforms of Reconstruction in the South. That was the beginning of Jim Crow—hardly the answer to a trivia question.) It is cold comfort to know how much worse it could have been. How much worse does it have to get before we change it? What faustian bargain is the next commission, or the next Supreme Court, going to make?

An eye to the future

There will be a next time. And probably, it will come a lot sooner than 2124. The Electoral College virtually guarantees the recurrence of a close vote. It’s a lot easier for 538 votes to split 50/50 than for 105 million to do so.

But there have been some reasonable objections raised to direct popular election of the president. Most notably, if every one of those 105 million votes really mattered, we would have to put a lot more attention and money into making sure each of them was properly counted. As noted earlier, in most states, the winner-take-all rule means that the size of the landslide doesn’t matter, as long as there really is one. We can afford to be sloppy. We can afford to put our oldest, least functional voting machines in poor neighborhoods and rural areas. We can afford to make polling places inaccessible to people with disabilities. We can afford to mess around with the absentee votes of people in the military. Only the “battleground” states really have to worry about running accurate and honest elections.

Oops. That’s an argument that cuts both ways, isn’t it? What we’re really saying is that democracy is expensive. Freedom isn’t free. There’s an original thought. You get what you pay for. How much do we value our republican form of government? Why don’t we put our money where our mouth is? Or is democracy only something we want to ram down the throats of ignorant foreigners, whether they want it or not?

UN monitoring

I wasn’t joking about that. I’m not joking about any of this. To a considerable extent, the mechanical flaws in the 2000 election were caused by outdated technology. But the up-to-date technology we’re looking at now may be even scarier. The wave of the future is on-line voting. Experts in computer security tell us such a system can be made secure from hacking and fraud. But that would be expensive, and would have to be monitored by an impartial agency immune to bribery and intimidation. One of the corporations reportedly interested in setting up computerized voting systems this year is—guess who?—Halliburton. Need I say more?

The shrinking electorate

A smaller proportion of voting-age citizens vote in each successive election. That’s actually a double problem. First, fewer people are eligible to vote, especially in minority communities. We are told that one-third of all African-American males of voting age are in jail, prison, or on probation or parole at any given moment. That means a similar percentage of African-American males are likely to have felony convictions on their records. In many states (including of course Florida) ex-cons are permanently barred from voting or holding office.

And second, a smaller proportion of people eligible to vote actually bother to register and vote. The 2000 debacle itself may have an effect on voter interest, though we can’t predict which way it will cut. My brother in Georgia believes more strongly than ever that every vote counts; but many of my students in Chicago know that their votes (above the 50% line) made absolutely no difference.

Whatever happened to the secret ballot?

Finally, the whole purpose of voting has been transformed by polling and fundraising into a sophisticated version of the Prisoner’s Game. Game theorists have brought us this situation in which the police arrest two men for some crime or other. They offer each man the same deal: the man who confesses first and implicates his accomplice gets minimal time (in some versions of the game, no time at all.) The man who confesses second, or not at all, gets the max. If both men confess, they both get the max. If neither of them does, they both go free. This requires the participants to put most of their energy into reading each other rather than dealing with the actual merits of the case (like, who actually committed the crime, if anyone; what kind of evidence do the police have, if any; which of the arrestees is most guilty?)

This year’s Democratic primary is nothing but an electoral variant of the Prisoner’s Game. The voter’s job is not to figure out who is the best candidate (however the voter may define that); the voter’s job is to figure out which of the candidates is most “electable.” Which means the voter’s job is not to read the candidates (which of these people is most likely to act in my interest or consistently with my principles? which of them is most competent to govern? which of them do I like best? trust? which one would I want marrying my daughter? which would I want to have lunch with?) The voter’s job is to read the other voters.

And that’s a tricky and deceptive business. Sociologists studying race relations in the ‘60s and ‘70s kept running into what they called the “neighbor problem.” People asked about their willingness to work or live near a member of another race were very likely to say, “I wouldn’t mind, but my neighbor (or the guy next to me on the assembly line) wouldn’t like it at all.” Some of them were projecting their own unacceptable attitudes onto the neighbor. Others were guessing at other people’s attitudes, but were (judging from the polling results of those very neighbors) as likely as not to be wrong.

Election pollsters have actually tried asking two sets of questions: who do you plan to vote for? and who would you vote for if you thought he could win? They invariably get two different results. The Prisoner’s Game corrupts the voting process at its very root. We waive our own best judgment in picking candidates, to improve our chances of voting for the winner. And we’re not all that good at picking the winner.

The Prisoner’s Game has become even dirtier, now that the forces of mass communication, backed by the power of special interest dollars, have been put to work shaping our perceptions. Advertising shapes what we want and expect from a candidate, what we believe about a particular candidate, and what we want and expect from the electoral process. Advertising tells us who the mythical neighbor is and who he will vote for.

Some immodest proposals

First, I’m not at this point suggesting amending the Constitution (unless the Republicans are so intent upon running this governor of California for president that they want to eliminate the requirement that a president be born a US citizen—then we can bargain.) We don’t really need to. All we really need to do is abolish the winner-takes-all rule on the state level, and require that the Electoral College vote proportionally reflect the popular vote in each state.

Second, we need to abolish all permanent bars on voting. Many states allow convicted felons to vote after they have completed their sentence; some require a waiting period after that. Either provision would be acceptable.

Third, we really seriously need some public-sector, impartial, externally accountable agency monitoring the electoral process, especially if we go to on-line voting. Under no circumstances should the process be “privatized.” Merely barring US corporations wouldn’t help, in this era of global conglomeration.

And finally, here’s something the individual voter can, and must, do: free yourself from the Prisoner’s Game. Vote for the candidate you honestly believe to be the best, without regard to his or her “electability.” Tell your friends about it, too. Announce it as you enter the polling place. Maybe we need some buttons made up: “Don’t vote for the electable. Vote for the best.”

Only if we do all these things can we create a democracy worth exporting.

Red Emma

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