Before most votes were cast in the November 2 presidential election, and before any of them were counted, tens of millions of Americans worried about whether the nation’s patchwork of systems for casting and counting ballots would break down as badly as it did in 2000. Six in ten Americans surveyed by the Associated Press said it was unlikely that a clear winner would be known by the morning of November 3. That opinion reflects the fact that four years after a close vote in Florida created a thirty-six-day recount battle that ended without all the votes being counted, America has done little to fix its broken electoral system.
The first problem is unequal protection: America has no uniform standard for registering voters, resolving challenges to those registrations, designing ballots, guaranteeing access to the polls, creating a paper trail when votes are cast, counting ballots and, in the case of a close election, recounting them. Instead, there is a collection of fifty-one different systems with often radically different rules. “It’s a tragedy in many ways that the standard for accountability and integrity and objectivity is better in many Third World countries than in ours,” says former President Jimmy Carter, who explains that the Carter Center, which monitors elections around the world, could not do so in the United States because of a lack of consistent standards and a lack of commitment on the part of both major parties to cooperate with the monitoring process.
The first major problem in effect guarantees the second: A system with inconsistencies rooted in the theory of states’ rights, which made possible the original sin of slavery and the secondary sin of segregation, lends itself uniquely and unquestionably to contemporary manifestations of Jim Crow politics. In Ohio, the quintessential swing state, Republicans have recruited 3,600 party loyalists to challenge the qualifications of voters in what the New York Times describes as “heavily Democratic urban neighborhoods of Cleveland, Dayton and other cities.” In Wisconsin, another battleground state, the Milwaukee county executive, a Republican, initially refused to allow the printing of what Milwaukee city officials determined to be an appropriate number of ballots to handle an expected surge in voter participation in heavily African-American and Latino neighborhoods in their city. In South Dakota, challenges to Native American voters are expected. And, yes, Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s appointed secretary of state was still purging voter lists as the election approached.
Whether or not this Election Day degenerates into a democratic disaster, the American electoral system is in need of radical reform. When the 2004 election is over, the first order of business for Congress should be to work with the Carter Center, the US Commission on Civil Rights and other groups to implement the easy reforms that would make for fairer and more reliable elections. Congress should create independent and impartial agencies to administer, oversee and certify elections at the state and national levels; assure that every voting machine in the country is equipped to verify votes and produce a paper record; re-enfranchise ex-felons; establish national standards for everything from voter registration to opening hours for polling places to the counting and recounting of ballots; and disburse funding to implement those standards and replace America’s separate, unequal and unreliable electoral systems with a universal system worthy of a country that fancies itself the world’s greatest democracy.