The Aftermath of Election 2000

The corporate mass media are repeating a familiar refrain which goes roughly as follows: The election is over, and we have a winner; it's time to rally around the new commander in chief; politics should be set aside; partisanship must be replaced by cooperation and compromise; we all need to work together for the common good; the new president deserves a chance to lead; and so on and so on.

Progressives should take all this with a grain of salt and concede nothing in advance to George W. Bush and the GOP. Bipartisan blather is the coin of the realm as we start the new year, but talk is cheap. If working together means acquiescing in a conservative legislative agenda, it must be pointed out early and often that, when the Gore and Nader votes are combined, a clear majority (52%) voted center-left in the presidential election, and that the "left," broadly defined, has a priority claim in formulating any consensus blueprint in Washington. Among other things, this means no approval of any further right-wing appointees to the Supreme Court.

Premature calls for an end to the disorderliness of democracy in the name of bipartisanship are rooted in an establishment desire to legitimize the Bush presidency and, above all, to arrest the stock-market slide, which has been blamed (incorrectly, in light of weakening economic fundamentals) on political uncertainty. Demands for an end to "political bickering" actually started before the election was decided. GOP supporters, we were told, were really angry; best to placate them and prevent public disorder by halting ballot recounts and anointing Bush. Now that George W. is safely ensconced in the White House, the ante has been upped; our unelected chief executive -- let's call him People's Choice -- is said to deserve a honeymoon period. Continued pleas for a cessation of partisan sniping should be recognized for what they are: an excuse to carry on business as usual and smooth the waters for a Republican restoration.

In light of the election's bitter closeness, appeals for a Rodney King-style politics (Can't we all just get along?) are not apt to fly. Since we're likely, then, to spend the next four years debating fundamental (and probably irreconcilable) differences and laying the groundwork for 2004, it would seem that no short-term progress in Washington is in the offing. Not necessarily.

If there is anything Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, the left and the right, should be able to agree on, it's the need for electoral reform. The 2000 election was an unmitigated disaster and would have been judged so no matter who won the presidency. Not only was no clear decision reached, there were agonizingly close contests -- for Congress as well as for president -- in states all over the country; Florida was only the worst example of an electoral system on the verge of paralysis. The frightening bottom line is that, unless a victory margin approaches 5%, error rates in tabulation preclude any absolute certainty about the actual winner.

The blame for this mess lies with the Constitution itself, which gives individual state legislatures the primary say (subject to congressional review) over how elections for federal office will be held. As a result, we have a national crazy quilt of ballots and voting procedures that vary from state to state, and even from county to county and municipality to municipality within those states. In addition, various jurisdictions differ in the amount of money they spend on elections; some fund modern, state-of-the-art balloting systems, and others maintain antiquated processes that were obsolete decades ago. Class differences also factor into the equation; wealthy localities tend to have decent voting systems, while poorer ones have trouble making proper tabulations due to wretched balloting machinery. Topping it all off is a vote count carried out by local election officials and untrained volunteers or party workers -- American democracy's version of the amateur hour.

The situation cries out for a federal statutory solution, as permitted under Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution. We can throw some money at the states from the national level and hope they can work the kinks out of their individual systems (a minimalist approach already being suggested by some congressmen and senators), but that's a stopgap measure at best. The real answer lies with nationalizing federal elections.

As with other intractable problems -- health care comes to mind -- our Canadian neighbors have shown the way. While Bush and Gore were wandering aimlessly in the swamp of Florida politics, Canada was holding its own national election. The result: 13 million ballots were counted across the Dominion in four hours by a federal voting commission made up of professional canvassers and observers, and Canadians knew the final results before they went to bed on election night. There were no partisan arguments, vote challenges, or disputed ballots north of the border, just a clean, fair, properly supervised election that was accepted by all sides.

One other addendum: Canada used the very same paper ballots it has used for over a century, ballots simple enough for the most challenged voter and clear enough to be easily counted by hand or by electric scanner. Perhaps the worst thing to come out of the Bush-Gore tussle has been the demonization in this country of paper ballots and hand counts. Americans are now being told that only a voting process untouched by human hands and automated to the nth degree can do a proper job. Some "experts" want a glitzy high-tech solution to our election woes, such as home Internet voting or the installation of computers in voting booths. Bill Gates is probably working right now on Voting Windows 2004.

There is a wise saying: "To err is human, but if you really want to foul up, use a computer." Florida has shown that existing voting machines malfunction and make mistakes; their admitted error rate is in the range of 2 to 5 percent. We can be sure that new, space-age voting technology will have its own flaws. The Canadian experience, on the other hand, has proven that expensive automation is not needed to hold a fair and accurate election; instead, what's needed are uncomplicated, uniform paper ballots and a single, professional, centrally-based election commission with the authority to count them. If the warring parties in Washington could agree to start the ball rolling on establishing such a commission, history would record that something worthwhile came out of the miserable 2000 election after all.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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