A close election, goes the old cliché, proves that every vote counts. Election 2000 proved just the opposite: When the election is close and every vote counts, or is supposed to, that's when the voter is the least powerful.
Come to find out, even the most fundamental particle of democracy is loaded with opportunities for partisan manipulation. Never mind outright fraud, like dead people voting. Leave aside campaign spending, advertising, and the way that money buys elections. Forget about the Electoral College and the way it undercounts voters in heavily populated states. And ignore the ordinary human error entailed in counting anything. Just stick to the normal machinery of democracy -- printing ballots, distributing them to voters, marking them, reading them, tallying them, and declaring a result. Every stage of the process calls for human decisions by someone other than the voter. Just because you vote doesn't mean your vote counts.
How does your vote become a vote? It's not as easy as you think.
Registrars decide whether your name's on their list. If they say no, you don't vote, and your vote doesn't count.
If the registrars say you must show two forms of ID when others show only one, you don't vote, and your vote doesn't count.
If they say you haven't filled in your voter ID number on your absentee ballot request, you don't vote and your vote doesn't count. . .
unless some party stalwarts were filling out applications en masse
and prevailed on the local registrar to let them fill in your number.
Then maybe you vote absentee.
If you live abroad and you don't get your absentee ballot postmarked by Election Day, your vote doesn't count. . .
unless a high state official declares that absentee ballots count if
they arrive by the date she sets, regardless of whether the post mark
is after Election Day.
If the polls are crowded and you don't get to the head of the line
before they close, you don't vote and your vote doesn't count. . .
unless a politician or a judge where you live decides to keep the polls open until everyone in line votes. Then maybe your vote counts.
If you don't punch the little hole quite hard enough, you make a dimpled
chad instead of a vote. A machine won't read your vote, so your
vote doesn't count. . .
unless someone asks for a recount. Then a team of rival counters
will decide whether you voted, depending, at their whim, on how
many corners of your chad are still attached. . .
unless the election is really hotly contested, in which case higher
authorities might set uniform standards for how to count chads.
Your vote might or might not count.
If the recount is done by machine, and if your chad gets knocked off
the ballot in the extra handling, your vote counts. . .
But if you only made a dimple on the ballot, your vote won't be read
by the machine, and your vote doesn't count. . .
unless there's a hand recount and the counters decide the dimple
indicates your intent to vote, then your vote counts.
If you get a butterfly ballot, you are likely to vote for a different
candidate than the one you intended to vote for. Your vote counts,
but not the way you meant it to count.
If you vote where there are old machines and all the levers don't work, you don't get to vote for some candidates or some offices. The precinct watchers know about the busted machines, but can't or won't do anything about them. Your vote doesn't count.
If the election is very close in your precinct or county, two or three
appointed officials will decide whether to recount. . .
or maybe, a judge will decide whether to allow the recount or stop it.
Your vote may or may not be counted correctly.
Any of these people might decide whether a recount will be by hand or by machine. If by hand, see #8. If by machine, see #9.
A state official has power to certify local tallies as correct, and if
there's more than one tally, to decide which one will be the official
count. Depending on which count she certifies, your vote may or
may not count. Oh, by the way, the official with all this power might
be a campaign activist, even the state campaign chair for one of the
candidates in the election. . .
unless, the whole election gets pulled out of state jurisdiction and
goes to the federal courts or the House of Representatives. Then,
who knows if your vote counts, or how?
When an election is tight, the people making all these
decisions are likely to be most partisan. Indeed, a close count as the
election wears on is bound to stimulate partisan juices. Votes, like
physical matter, are subject to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: We
can never know the precise measurements of a particle because the sheer
act of observation changes the particle's behavior.
Of course we've always known that elections are won with
money and power. But votes are supposed to be the great democratic
equalizer -- one person, one vote, and all that. Until Election 2000, at
least we had a theoretical hope that every vote counted. Now the ballot is
just a thin, dimpled veil over the big democratic secret: Some people
have lots more power to decide whether and how your vote counts than
you do. Big Whigs, Money Bags, and Lawyers control your vote, just
like they control everything else.
What should we learn from this election? We could decide that
one vote doesn't matter after all and shun the polls even more than we
do already. Or we could get mad as hell and clean up the system.
We can't eliminate human observation and decision-making
from counting ballots. Even the best machines still make mistakes, but
suppose we were to install the best machines in every precinct in the
country. People will still have to make decisions about eligibility to vote,
absentee ballots, ballot design, whether and how to do recounts, and
ultimately, which results to accept as official when there's more than one
But we can eliminate some of the opportunities for partisan manipulation. For starters, we can set federal standards for elections, so that issues like voter registration, ballot design, and absentee voting are removed from local discretion. We should also set procedural standards for handling close elections. Yes, everybody's partisan in a close
election, but surely we can apply some basic conflict-of-interest rules to
the system. The person with the authority to make the most crucial
calls -- deciding whether to recount and which count to certify -- ought not be a person who is a campaign activist for one of the candidates or parties. If, as in the case of Florida, these two roles coincide, the person ought to be required to step down. We ought to have something like compulsory arbitration in place for these situations. Bring in people whom both sides can trust and who have a professional stake in being fair.
Unless we establish procedures that persuade voters that
elections are fair, democracy is finished.