A Model Democracy


At press time, we have yet to select a new President. What we have done is something more extraordinary: Offered the prime-time viewing public, both here and abroad, a glimpse of how the sausage is made behind the scenes of an American election. It wasn’t pretty. Two generations after Jim Crow, we hear reports of “safety checkpoints” set up by white state troopers in rural Florida, along routes traveled by African American voters. Meanwhile, Floridians of Haitian descent are systematically told, apparently, that their names are not on the books. The Democrats have set up a hotline for voters to report “irregularities” in Florida, and Jesse Jackson is demanding a fresh vote in the affected counties.

But this is just for show. The Democrats don’t really want to make their case on this basis because, as every insider knows, the Democrats are just as guilty of “irregularities,” though not of the civil rights variety. Richard Daley’s Chicago machine was famous for delivering Illinois to the Democratic presidential nominee without fail, even if it meant dead union members had to vote. Twice. Cokie Roberts joked on David Letterman forty-eight hours after election night that in her home state of Louisiana, they bury the dead above ground so it will be easier for them to get to the polls. That practice did not die with Huey Long. (During this reporter’s brief stint as a staffer in the Texas State Senate, it was no secret that campaign workers were sometimes paid to go door to door with ballots, already filled out, ready for a signature. “Assisting elderly voters,” it was called.) Perhaps some of those international election observers we’re so fond of dispatching to Latin America are in order. Where’s Jimmy Carter?

The Gore camp seems much more serious about litigating the apparently illegal “butterfly” ballot used in Palm Beach County, where every indication suggests that Gore was robbed of several thousand votes, and, in all likelihood, the Presidency. To which we say: More power to them. If voting is democracy’s finest hour, then it should not be thwarted by misleading ballots and mechanical errors. The will of the people is always paramount. Or is it? This election also exposed the distinctly anti-democratic institution known as the Electoral College. Regardless of who takes Florida’s electoral votes, Gore has won the popular vote, and as the people’s choice (of those who voted, at least), he should be President. The Electoral College is a relic of the early Republic, born of some distinctly undemocratic impulses. Slaveholding states were the big winners, because slaves counted toward the number of electoral votes a state was assigned, even though the slaves themselves could not vote. Nor was there any incentive to allow women to vote under the system, since they counted, too. Even today, the system assigns weight to a state based on population, regardless of how many people in the state actually vote. The overall effect of the winner-take-all system in each state is that candidates write off states in which they are not competitive, and focus all of their money, attention, and promises on the handful of swing states. At no time was that reality more evident than in this election. There was scarcely a bumper sticker in Texas, whereas Pennsylvanians were being hit with a TV or radio ad every five minutes.

Let’s not forget the networks and their exit pollers, who were also exposed for the questionable contribution to the democratic process they have always played. Florida went from red to blue on the map so many times, they should have just left it purple. In the aftermath of having the nation’s most respected anchorpersons publicly humiliated (and kept up way past their bedtimes), the networks are said to be “rethinking” their policy of forecasting state by state wins. Shitcanning producers is what they’re really doing.

Then there was the money. The Republicans spent $750 million total on the presidential race (RNC and Bush funds combined). And for what? They will owe their victory, if they get it, to some redneck trooper in Florida, parking his car on some dark stretch of asphalt, and flagging cars down with his skull-cracking flashlight, just so some good ol’ boy county judge trying to beat a Democrat will owe him a favor.

But the ultimate irony has to be the 400,000 permanently disenfranchised black men in Florida, who have lost their right to vote under Florida law because they are convicted felons, even though most of them are no longer in jail. That’s one in three black men in the state. The rest of their cohort voted nearly ninety percent for Gore, suggesting that he would have won easily if even ten percent of these men had been allowed to vote. It’s a safe bet that at least half of those men were convicted of drug crimes. The Clinton-Gore administration has enthusiastically overseen the arrest of more drug offenders than any previous administration, and during his campaign Gore chastised legalization efforts in California and vowed to continue the Drug War if elected.

Party leaders have shot themselves in the foot by disenfranchising a natural constituency in Florida, just as they have by driving progressives into the Nader camp with their New Democrat policies. Will they try something different next time around? Or will they reload? –NB