Ten years after the US Supreme Court barred a real recount of Florida ballots and handed the presidency to the candidate who had lost the popular vote of the republic—in the original sin of the last decade—the United States still has an unstable and unequal election system that is ripe for gaming by political insiders and that too frequently rewards money and power rather than fostering democracy.
The Florida fight exposed some of the worst pathologies of the electoral process: ill-defined and inconsistent rules for resolving disputes over voter eligibility, different ballot designs from county to county, different voting technologies (ranging from paper ballots to the most advanced scanners) from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, unclear requirements for when and how recounts should occur, partisan control of the process and uneven timelines and requirements for getting a result and certifying it. The result was an imagined chaos—not genuine chaos, as all the challenges could have been addressed and resolved if Florida officials had been motivated to do so—that provided an opening for an activist High Court majority to intervene on behalf of its preferred candidate.
After Al Gore (the Democratic contender who won the national popular vote by more than 500,000 ballots and was the clear choice of the plurality of Floridians who went to the polls on November 7, 2000) announced on December 13, 2001, that he was giving up the fight to have all of Florida’s votes counted, there was a good deal of talk about getting things right. New laws were written. New money was expended. New technologies were developed. And meaningful, if not definitional progress was made on some issues and in some states.
But, a decade on, we still have the old problem of an uneven and unequal election map that allows for more democracy in some states and less in others.
As Fair Vote’s Rob Richie notes, the United States still lacks some of the most basic standards and practices when it comes to voting and elections.
"Upholding fair voter access and protecting voting rights should not be a partisan issue," he explains. "In our decentralized system however, some states do a better job at protecting these rights than others."
For instance, in nine states, citizens can register and vote on Election Day. In forty-one others, they must go through an often complex process weeks before the election, and then hope that the paperwork was processed correctly and delivered to the right polling place. Needless to say, states that allow Election Day voter registration have significantly higher voter turnout patterns—and significantly fewer problems making sure that eligible voters are able to cast ballots.
There is no universal standard for voter registration, no universal standard for counting votes, no universal standard for recounting votes and no universal standard for resolving too-close-to-call elections. Some states are models of efficiency and good practice (Minnesota, for instance), while others are disasters waiting to happen.
What this means is that, in any given election cycle, millions of Americans who would like to vote are disenfranchised—either because of barriers to registration, confusing rules, uneven standards for resolving disputes over eligibility, machinery that does not alert voters when a bad ballot is cast and practices that undermine the ability of voters to assure that their sentiments are recorded. In close presidential elections, this creates an uneven circumstance where voters in states that maintain best practices are significantly more likely to influence the result than voters in states that are less serious about democracy. It also means that members of the House and Senate are elected by different rules—even though their authority is equal once they arrive in Washington.