We Americans have always prided ourselves on our democracy, our opportunity to go into a private place and select the people who most closely represent the policies we want to see. And yet… in Virginia’s 2009 election cycle, which included a gubernatorial race, fewer than half of registered voters cast a ballot. Even in Presidential election years, only around three-quarters of registered voters go to the polls. And those who actually voted are about one-third the number of people who are eligible to vote. Obviously, participation in our democracy is less than optimal. What happens, though, when those who want to cast a ballot don’t trust the system as it stands? That’s what worries Richard L. Hasen, creator of the Election Law Journal, which examines the cultures and technicalities of the voting process.
Hasen looks at the entire process and the potential points of conflict in our election system, which suffers from the fractured nature of county-based administration overseen by partisan state officials and guided by nearly incomprehensible law. He surveys the charges and counter-charges of both Democrats and Republicans in the way voters are registered and identified at the polls, and the way votes are counted, or not, after they are cast. He also envisions an election where the chaos of the Florida 2000 election looks tame by comparison.
Hasen identifies the two sides of the battle in terms of goals. One side, usually Democratic, wants to include everyone who wants to vote, accepting that a marginal amount of fraud is possible. The other, usually Republican, wants a strict process that eliminates any hint of fraud, even if it leads to the disenfranchisement of tens or hundreds of thousands of voters. Of the two, Hasen identifies a real and organized threat on one side, and debunks claims against another threat. He examines other issues that he believes to be more important to the integrity of the electoral process and ends with a pessimistic view of a future without reform.
If you tune into Fox News or Rush Limbaugh, or read the myriad of conservative newspapers and magazines, you’d inevitably hear from those Hasen identifies as “the Fraudulent Fraud Squad.” With credibility established by their national careers, people like Karl Rove and Hans von Spakovsky are able to present their unchallenged narrative and build support for voter ID laws. They also extend their power into the polling booths through an organization calling itself “True the Vote,” which trains volunteers to work as aggressive purgers of voter rolls and as observers primed to overwhelm poll workers and voters with challenges.
On the other hand, voter *registration* fraud, which is usefully conflated with voter fraud by ID proponents, brings up the specter of ACORN organizing waves of illegal voters. Those accusations, which discredited the advocacy organization, made it possible for subsequent false allegations to break its back and shut it down. When closely examined, though, it turns out that one ACORN employee violated the law in Nevada by using incentives on his workers, and that ACORN itself was defrauded by temporary workers who were later convicted. But none of those fraudulent voters ever turned up at the polls.
Moving up the chain, Hasen discussed the problems of partisan election officials. He’s quick to point out that both sides are guilty of manipulating their positions to take advantage of unclear vote-counting procedures, especially in recounts. Both sides are also closely studying election laws and regulations, which may lead to a tidal wave of litigation for contested results. That will put election outcomes in the hands of judges, who may themselves be partisan. That kind of scenario is discouraging to both new voters and people who believe that participation in democracy is the highest form of citizenship.
He also examines and dismisses the “fringe left” theory that voting machines are subject to hacking, which probably requires a perfect storm of opportunities. However, he is troubled by the secrecy involved in creating the machines and software, and in the unreliability of electronic machines that don’t produce a paper trail for audits. (I would be interested in his take on the slot machine/voting equipment comparison, but he only links to it on his blog without comment.) The good news is that problems have decreased; the bad news is that they aren’t resolved, especially for military and overseas voters.
So where does this leave us? Hasen is glum about the likelihood of top-to-bottom reform which would standardize registration and elections, put them in the hands of competent nonpartisan professionals, and make them transparent to anyone interested in auditing results. He’s also glum (even frightened?) by the possibility that social media has further polarized partisans and made the likelihood of finding a compromise more difficult. My own concern is that the invective of anonymity on the Internet will boil over into public turmoil that will make the “Brooks Brothers Riot” of 2000 look like nuns playing touch football. In any case, Hasen’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in how democracy in the United States moves forward.
PS: I wrote this post on October 26, and on the 27th, the Washington Post ran this story. Just goes to show that we have a lot of work to do to get from here to some semblance of a national election that represents the popular will.
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