Nation Topics - Voting
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After two decades of visiting political nightmares on the state--from
the infamous Prop 13 to the immigrant-bashing Prop 187--California's
notorious initiative and referendum system finally promises to deliver a
welcome gift this November. Enough signatures have been gathered to
qualify the Election Day Voter Registration initiative (EDR) for this
fall's ballot. The measure, which would allow citizens to both register
and vote on Election Day, is seen by many as the most significant
election reform possible at this time.
Since the 2000 presidential debacle in Florida, reformers have mostly
concentrated on improving the logistics of balloting. "But that isn't
the problem," says Cal Tech Professor Mike Alvarez, co-author of a new
report analyzing EDR. "The problem in American elections isn't voting
machines. The biggest problem is voter registration."
Voter participation both across the United States and within California
has plummeted steadily over the past three decades, constantly setting
new records of anemic turnout. "Worse, the higher your income and the
older you are, the more likely you are one of those left voting," says
former Connecticut Secretary of State Miles Rapoport, now the head of
the Demos organization, which commissioned Alvarez's study.
Supporters of EDR say it's the perfect prescription for reversing the
downward trend. In most states voters must register some weeks or even
months in advance of actual balloting, and the process is often
cumbersome and confusing. There are currently six states that have moved
to EDR, and the increase in turnout has been an immediate 3-6 percent.
Voting among young people and those who have moved in the previous six
months runs some 15 percent higher in states that have adopted EDR.
Similar reforms, like "motor voter," which allows registration at the
time of driver's-license renewal, have not been as effective.
Motor-voter does bring in a lot of registrations, but many of the new
potential voters don't show up on Election Day.
Perhaps the most dramatic use of EDR was in Minnesota's 1998
gubernatorial election. More than 330,000 last-minute, previously
unregistered voters were swept to the polls by the enthusiasm around
independent candidate Jesse Ventura and were the decisive margin in his
victory over the two traditional parties. EDR is also credited with
boosting liberal Senator Paul Wellstone into office during his first
run, in 1990.
Alvarez thinks that if EDR is adopted in California--where the
electorate has been disproportionately white, suburban and elderly--an
increase of up to 9 percent in turnout can be anticipated. "That's
something like 1.9 million additional voters in a presidential
election," he says. And that increase would contribute to greater
ethnic, class and age equity. Increases in voters aged 18-25 would
increase by a projected 12 percent, Latino voters by 11 percent and
African-American voters by 7 percent. A 10 percent increase could be
expected from those with a grade-school education or less, an equal
increase from those who have lived at their address for less than six
months and a 12 percent increase from new-citizen voters.
The measure is endorsed by a plethora of nonprofit activist groups and
has also gotten support from top moderate Republicans, including former
Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and former US Representative Tom
Campbell. No organized opposition to EDR has yet emerged, though
nativist groups are expected to charge that it opens the door to
fraudulent voting by undocumented aliens.
But backers of the measure are taking no chances. The gathering of about 700,000 signatures was financed with $1 million from California businessman and philanthropist Rob McKay,
whose McKay Foundation has an established track record in backing social
justice issues. And plans are to spend another $7 million to see the
initiative through to victory in November. During the 2001-02
legislative session, a dozen other states are expected to take up
"We have to lower the barriers to voting every way we can," says McKay.
"We are no longer dealing with just voter apathy. Now we are dealing
with outright voter alienation. With this measure we are trying to draw
the line in the sand."
Thousands of citizens can't register or have been wrongly thrown off the rolls.
We shall see very little of the charmingly simian George W. Bush. The military--Cheney, Powell et al.--will be calling the tune, and the whole nation will be on constant alert, for, James Baker has already warned us, Terrorism is everywhere on the march. We cannot be too vigilant.
Since election night, pundits and politicians, as well as academics and armchair commentators, have spent an enormous amount of time wringing their hands about the mistakes made in calling Florida and the role the exit polls may or may not have had in the process. Although understanding the decisions behind the calls is important, it obscures the equally important fact that most of the national polls were wrong for at least the final two weeks before the election.
Of the eleven national polls and trackers released between November 5 and 6, only two surveys showed Gore leading Bush (CBS and Reuters/MSNBC/Zogby), while one poll showed the candidates tied (Harris). The remaining eight polls showed Gore losing, one by as much as 5 percentage points, which would have been the equivalent of a landslide. While many of these surveys in the final analysis lay within the margin of error, all the polls were biased in the same direction. With the Bush lead firmly established in the media polls throughout October, pundits for the most part were ready to give the race to Bush, even though Gore won the popular vote and probably won Florida.
Polls play an increasingly central part in election coverage as the horse race becomes a greater and greater media preoccupation. With survey results, the press can breathlessly report the impact of events and gaffes, like Gore's performance in the debates or Bush's abuse of the English language. The twists and turns of the race are cloaked in the scientific mantle of survey research, like the results of the Gallup tracking poll used by CNN and USA Today, which once showed an eighteen-point shift in the electorate in the course of a couple of nights.
Although we understand a great deal about the science of polling, the methodology of these surveys relies on a set of debatable assumptions about who is most likely to turn out and vote on Election Day. This year most experts predicted low turnout, meaning that only the most motivated voters--normally the most highly educated and affluent citizens--would find their way to the polls. Generally, low turnout favors the Republicans, since high socioeconomic status is associated with both political participation and conservative political preferences.
To accommodate these predictions, the polls screened tightly for those most likely to vote, adjusted for predicted turnout and in some cases "weighted up" the GOP share in the sample. All those adjustments meant that most of the national polls going into Election Day showed a 2- to 5-point Bush lead, even when individual state polls showed Gore performing much better. In fact, one of the great mysteries during the campaign was how Gore could hold leads or remain tied in so many battleground states and trail Bush so consistently in the national polls. One answer was simply that those polls were wrong. In fact, internal Gore polling showed the race tied and stable for the last two weeks of the campaign.
Why did the media polls employ those methodological criteria even in the face of serious get-out-the-vote efforts by the NAACP and the labor unions to bring out the Democratic base? First, the polling outlets were burned in 1996 when they overstated the size of Clinton's lead over Dole throughout much of the campaign. Second, the media outlets are competing for market share in an ever-expanding universe of polling data. In the course of this competition, they develop "proprietary" models for determining the composition of samples, with a premium on having the most scientific method for predicting the outcome. Once those criteria are determined, it is difficult to alter them midstream, because changes in the polls may be ascribed to methodological adjustments rather than actual changes in the race.
There is no insidious conspiracy to rig the polls in favor of one candidate or another. The national pollsters who partner with media outlets are respected survey researchers. But turnout was higher than predicted, thanks to the mobilization efforts of interest groups and the closeness of the race. The polls could not accommodate a broader concept of who might vote, and this methodological choice had political consequences. The fact that Bush could be seen as the presumptive winner certainly is linked to the mistaken Florida second call on election night, but it was framed by a month of Bush polling ascendancy.
Amid all the partisan sniping, talking-head screeching and judicial decisions, there are two indisputable facts that go far toward explaining the true tragedy of the Florida recount.
Fact one: In this election, punch-card voting machines recorded five times as many ballots with no presidential vote as did the more modern optical-scanning systems. A New York Times analysis of forty-eight of the state's sixty-eight counties found that 1.5 percent of the ballots tallied under the punch-card method showed no vote at the top of the ticket, while only 0.3 percent of the ballots counted by the newer machines registered no vote for the President. An Orlando Sun-Sentinel examination concluded that counties using the best optical-scanning method recorded presidential votes on more than 99 percent of the ballots, and counties using the old punch-card devices counted presidential votes on only 96.1 percent of the ballots.
Fact two: Punch-card machines were more widely used in areas where low-income and African-American citizens vote. Two-thirds of the state's black voters reside in counties using punch cards, while 56 percent of white voters do.
Put these two undeniable facts together and the conclusion is inescapable: A statistically significant slice of the Florida electorate was disfranchised by voting technology. That is, a disproportionate number of voters done in by the error-prone punch-card machines were low-income and black Floridians, who generally favored Al Gore over George W. Bush. Presumably, some no-vote ballots actually did not include a vote for President. But given the closeness of the election--decided by .008 percent--it is likely that presidential votes missed by the punch-card machines would have decisively affected the contest. Bush "won"--among other reasons--because of voting-machine discrimination.
This crucial part of the tale has been overwhelmed by dimple-mania and the usual campaign back-and-forth. But ten days after the election, the Sun-Sentinel reported that "Florida's different vote-counting machines resulted in more GOP votes." For example, Brevard County, the home of space-shuttle launches, spent $1 million on more advanced machines in 1999, moving from punch-card tabulators to optical scanning machines that read pen-marked ballots (and that immediately return to the voter a ballot with a problem). Under the new system, the voting machines in this Bush-leaning county found presidential votes on 99.7 percent of the ballots. In 1996 the county's punch-card machines read presidential votes on 97.2 percent. Which means Bush, thanks to the upgrade, likely banked an additional 453 votes for his statewide total--practically his post-recount victory margin. The paper noted that the twenty-five counties that used the punch-card machines went for Gore over Bush 51.8 percent to 46 percent and produced 144,985 ballots with unrecorded presidential votes. Had the people who cast these ballots entered voting booths equipped with the more efficient machines, Gore no doubt would have collected hundreds--if not thousands--more votes than Bush.
There have been allegations that black Floridians encountered racial intimidation at voting sites. (The Justice Department has initiated an informal assessment, not an investigation.) And Bush benefited from the all-too-routine bias by which minority areas receive poorer government services. Unfortunately not just for Gore but for the victims of this quiet bias in Florida, this inequity was unaddressed by the Florida circuit court and the US Supreme Court, partly because the Gore campaign didn't raise it.
The Gore legal challenge focused on 14,000 or so supposedly no-vote punch-card ballots in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, not the statewide problem, and called for a manual review only of those ballots. The Veep's lawyer did not argue that the county-by-county patchwork voting system operated less effectively for blacks, a constituency that Democrats rely on to win elections. In his ruling against Gore, Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls noted that the record "shows error and/or less than total accuracy in regard to the punch-card voting devices utilized in Dade and Palm Beach Counties." But Sauls declared that Gore's legal team had not established "a reasonable probability" that the statewide results would turn out differently if those ballots were counted in a better fashion. Either Gore's attorneys screwed up big by not making this point more obvious--which they might have done had they filed contests based on the wider issue--or Sauls misread the math. As for the US Supreme Court, it displayed no eagerness to adjudicate such a touchy and fundamental voting-rights matter as systematic disfranchisement through technology. Its decision--in which it told the state Supreme Court to try again--indicates that the Court wanted to approach the Florida case narrowly, at least in the first go-round.
If a system is decisively skewed to one group's advantage, does that amount to theft? Or is that just the way it is? Clearly, a more equitable vote-counting system in the state--punch-cards for all or optical-scanners for all--would have yielded a different final count. This is an injustice that no court has confronted, on which Bush may well ride into the White House, and that should not be forgotten.
Here's the Bush idea of electoral reform: Cancel the election. The Florida legislature's move to choose the state's electors and declare George W. Bush the next President is only the latest of Bush's attempts to short-circuit electoral due process, raising the stakes in the Florida recount far beyond the interests and limitations of Al Gore. Bush's premature declaration of victory, the bare-knuckle tactics employed by his camp through the initial recount and now the legislature's attempt to pre-empt voters altogether have laid down a chilling marker: Bush is trying unilaterally to make his presidency a fact, rendering irrelevant both the legal system and a credible counting of Florida's votes.
To keep those voters' legally cast ballots from being counted, Bush, James Baker and Dick Cheney orchestrated a Big Lie campaign at an extraordinary level. New York Governor George Pataki insisted, "We've now had a count, a recount, a recount of the recount." In fact, at least 10,000 Miami-Dade ballots recorded no presidential vote, suggesting they were never counted properly in the first place. According to the New York Times, antiquated and error-prone Votomatic machines prevalent in the same county's black precincts may have cost Gore as many as 7,000 votes. Bob Dole hammered away at Gore for "disenfranchising" the military. The substance of those allegations vanished so quickly that the Bush campaign withdrew its lawsuit. Bush himself denounced Florida's hand counts, saying they were able to produce "no fair or accurate result." In fact, as US District Judge Donald Middlebrooks pointedly noted in rejecting Bush's case, Florida's hand-recount procedures are studiously "neutral," and Bush had as much right to request hand counts or to challenge certification as Gore. Hand recounts are routine in virtually every election jurisdiction in the country.
Curiously, the Republicans and Democrats seem to share the same central premise, which is that if enough votes get counted Gore will win--hence a GOP strategy based on impeding recounts at any cost. This strategy found near-perfect expression in that pre-Thanksgiving hecklers' veto of the Miami-Dade recount by a screaming crowd of Republican Congressional staffers flown in for the occasion. With thousands of Miami-Dade and Palm Beach votes still to be counted in Gore's post-certification contests, the legislature is now going to the next logical step: Why have an election at all when you can have a coronation?
To back up his effort to crown himself over the heads of Florida's voters, Bush is playing one of the hoariest cards in the right-wing deck: resentment of the judiciary. When Bush, in his "I'm in charge here" speech, denounced the Florida Supreme Court for "rewriting the law," he knowingly stirred regional and racist resentment. His lawyers, led by Ken Starr crony Ted Olson, continued on the same tack with the US Supreme Court, in their brief charging the Florida high court with "judicial legislation" for extending the state's certification deadline in a routine bit of legal interpretation. As political strategy, this effort to delegitimize the judiciary harks back to the impeach earl warren bumper stickers of 1960s segregationists and the Reagan-era attacks on civil-libertarian state judges like California's Rose Bird. As legal theory, Bush's Supreme Court argument has even more profound implications than the election itself. As Laurence Tribe and Gore's legal team correctly noted in their reply, Bush "would undermine the authority of the judiciary to decide the meaning of law."
An election is supposed to represent the direct line connecting people to power. The Bush strategy of impeding the vote counting does the opposite, drawing into the whirlwind every branch and level of government; each new escalation pulls the election's outcome a step further from the voters. The conventional wisdom of the moment is that Gore should give up for the sake of closure, and the Democrats should return to fight another day. But the legitimacy of votes and the legitimacy of the judiciary in protecting voters' rights are principles too fundamental to abandon without the most exhaustive political and legal battle. Whatever you think of Al Gore, this is terrain that is essential to fight for to the bitter end. Settling for less is a false closure not worth contemplating.
Three days before the election, I took part in a television panel with former White House flack Joe Lockhart, who was doing his best to hold up his end of the tattered Gore-Lieberman banner. When the show was over, I asked him what he really thought and he said, "I'm pinning everything on the Electoral College." It now takes an effort of memory to recall, but this was what all the Democratic elite were saying that week. So the sudden moral emphasis on the popular vote is slightly unseemly, especially in view of the fact that the vote hasn't been counted yet.
There's been a lot of talk in recent days about "disfranchisement." Jesse Jackson has invoked memories of the bloody battles for voter registration in Selma; elderly Jews in Palm Beach, upset that they might have voted for an anti-Semite, have sworn that they were "disfranchised" by a butterfly ballot. The Republicans have lamented the disfranchisement of overseas soldiers for want of a postmark. Even the justices of the Florida Supreme Court got into the act.
The rhetoric is overblown, but there is a point: One byproduct of our election-turned-lawsuit is the revelation of the many ways people can be prevented from voting and having their votes counted. Thanks to the spotlight on Florida (focusing beams elsewhere as well), we now know that it is routine for states and counties to toss out tens of thousands of ballots because they are imperfectly marked; for countless people to arrive at the polls to find that their registration forms have been lost; for voting machines to have error rates that would be unacceptable in the grading of SATs.
The most extreme case is outright legal disfranchisement. Since the dramatic advances in voting rights of the 1960s, straightforward legal barriers apply only to two large groups of adults: noncitizens and felons. Noncitizens, numbering 15 million, have not always been excluded from the franchise, but the last state to allow aliens to vote (Arkansas) did away with that practice in the 1920s. Although a few communities permit resident aliens to vote in local elections, there has been a notable absence of debate in the United States (in comparison with Europe) on the proposition that people should be able to vote where they live and work.
Felons are permanently disfranchised in some states and temporarily barred in most others. (On November 7 Massachusetts brought a long, progressive history to an end by voting to disfranchise convicted felons.) Disfranchised felons and ex-felons now number roughly 4 million, most of them black or Hispanic. The link between the commission of a crime and the deprivation of political rather than civil rights has always been tenuous, and the constitutional legitimacy of such laws resides in a dubious interpretation of a phrase in the Fourteenth Amendment that tacitly permits the states to deprive men of the right to vote because of their participation in "rebellion or other crime."
Voters can also be prevented from voting (or having their votes counted) because they are tripped up somewhere along the elections-procedure obstacle course. In most states, advance registration is required; in many, no voting cards are issued, and (as happened in Illinois and elsewhere this year) people who thought they had registered at motor-vehicles bureaus discovered on Election Day that their registration was never recorded. Ballots are sometimes bewildering, assistance at the polls is scarce and problematic, and polling places migrate, often without notice.
In some states, it can be difficult, or even impossible, to vote for a candidate who happens not to be a Democrat or a Republican. In North Carolina, for example, Ralph Nader was not on the ballot (because he lacked enough signatures on a petition last spring), and write-in votes for Nader were not counted because he was not an "official" write-in candidate. (Since that fact was not advertised, many people did write in his name and had their ballots thrown away.) Meanwhile, the Electoral College dilutes the presidential votes of large-state residents, and minority voters are still subject to harassment in parts of the South.
This unhappy state of affairs has complex origins. Some of our institutions, such as the Electoral College, were created in an era when there were few believers in democracy. Many regulations date to a resurgence of antidemocratic sentiment in the late nineteenth century, a time when the two major parties colluded to suppress the threat of third-party insurgencies and when complex registration schemes were adopted both to minimize fraud and to reduce the electoral participation of blacks and immigrant workers. Over the past century, election rules have been forged through partisan rivalry, with spells of conflict ending truces and compromises that permitted the parties to mobilize their most loyal voters while imposing burdens on everyone else. That's how we ended up with Republican officials correcting the absentee-ballot forms of their voters, while their Democratic counterparts were instructing voters in Duval County (erroneously) to put a punch on every page. So much for the voice of the people.
When you read this, George W. Bush may be President, which will most likely mean that his lawyers, his brother Jeb and his Florida campaign co-chair and ambassadorial wannabe Katherine Harris succeeded in short-circuiting the manual recounts in Florida that had Al Gore's total edging upward. Or Gore--who, as we went to press, said he would abide by the results of a limited or, if Bush preferred, statewide hand recount--may have wrested victory from the jaws of premature concession because the hand-counted chads were hanging his way.
The bromide "every vote must count" has oft been uttered, but the Florida election ripped the veil off the many ways votes can be made not to count. Such as: Secretary of State Harris's refusal to redress blunders like the mysteriously unrecorded 6,600 presidential-line votes in Broward County; her selective tolerance of a 5 percent error rate in Florida's voting-card machines in an election with a far narrower margin; improprieties in the handling of GOP absentee ballots in Seminole County; closings of polling places in certain black precincts while voters were still waiting in line; and denial of requests for Creole interpreters.
In tandem with these ward-heeler power plays went the Bush forces' relentless stealth attack on democracy--the strategy seemed to be to sow confusion and doubt about the counting process. Leading the spinners was the pompous ex-Secretary of State James Baker, whose phalanx of lawyers sought an injunction in federal court--never mind the hypocrisy of champions of states' rights trying to overturn state elections laws. Federal judge Donald Middlebrooks gave these ploys short shrift and underscored that recounts are not aberrations in our system but routine occurrences, which a body of state and local law exists to handle.
The polls showed that a majority of Americans approved of the idea that the votes be fully and fairly counted; it was mainly the conservative punditocracy and academic talking heads who called for Gore to fall on his sword. We were reminded of the run-up to impeachment, when some of these same tribunes were hectoring President Clinton to resign rather than "put the country through" a period of instability threatening to undermine democracy and the Free World. Such warnings were dusted off for Baker's PR drive, enlivened with dire threats that the market would go south if a recount continued (upon which the market, driven by its inner neuroses, went up). Conveniently forgotten was the fact that there's a President on the job until January 20.
As the legal/political maneuvers unfolded we were struck by the relevance of what contributors to this issue, among them Lani Guinier, Theodore Lowi and William Greider, are saying from different angles: First, that democracy is messy and unpredictable--something the elites abhor--and all the more reason to insure that every vote is duly counted; and second, that over the long term the aftermath of this election may be more important than the question of which contender wins the race--if it galvanizes citizens to take a fresh look at the American way of voting. Right now we live in a drafty old house, and our contributors propose some practical ways to fix the roof and shore up the foundation. As Americans have learned throughout history, our rights periodically have to be wrested back from elites trying to take them away--as the Bush team was caught doing in Florida.
This election may jolt Americans out of a passive acceptance of civil mythologies.