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American Politics

 
 

An 18th-century electoral system in 21st-century America

by Claude Couture

In this election season in the United States, all attention is on the breakdown in what was supposed to be the world’s greatest financial system. Something similar can be said about the democratic system in which this election is taking place. As dramatized in Florida in 2000, this self-proclaimed greatest democracy in the world has little clue about how to organize elections. Eight years later, Americans still face an uphill battle to win full respect for their right to vote.

Although written in the context of the 2008 election campaign, this article is based on observations I made four years ago while spending the academic year at the University of Washington in Seattle. I will try to show that the Florida fiasco of 2000 was not an aberration but a normal occurrence in a system lacking a nonpartisan body to enforce consistent and clear electoral rules. The deepest manifestation of the problem is a system of boundary drawing ensuring, in effect, that all electoral districts are gerrymandered. But it finds its way into all aspects of the process – including the very counting of votes. Despite the hope generated by the candidacy and (at the time of writing) likely election of Mr. Obama, it is very unlikely that the American system will be changed.

In two provocative books,1 journalist Daniel Lazare argues persuasively that America’s antiquated institutions have evolved into obstacles to democracy: the United States has entered the 21st century with an 18th-century set of institutions. People around the world could see this when the result in 2000 was rendered suspect by the debacle in Florida, but subsequent elections also exemplify the American “malaise.” When the U.S. Supreme Court stated in June 2004 that “the constitution does not protect the right of all citizens to vote, but rather the right of all qualified citizens to vote,”2 it bore out Lazare’s claim that built into this political system is an 18th-century elitist and regionally fragmented way of running elections. In what follows, I describe the events surrounding the 2004 gubernatorial race in the state of Washington, which manifested the profound contradictions of the American system, a cavalier treatment of what should be the fundamental civil right to vote, and carelessness with the fundamentals of democracy.

Washington state: Partisan at every step

Rematch: Republican Dino Rossi (L), who lost to Democrat Christine Gregoire (R) in the disputed 2004 Washington gubernatorial election, challenged Gregoire again in 2008.

On election day, November 2, 2004, three-term Washington state Attorney General Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, found herself in a tight race with former state senator Dino Rossi, the Republican candidate (both candidates are running again in 2008). On the night of the election, with Gregoire ahead by just a few hundred votes and hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots left to count, the race was far too close to call. Two weeks later, on November 17, with all counties finally reporting, Rossi won the election by 261 votes. With such a small difference, state law triggered a mandatory machine recount. When this recount was completed on November 24, Rossi won again but his lead was reduced to 42 votes. Rossi’s campaign declared victory. Gregoire declined to concede and Democrats hinted at requesting another recount. “Some people have suggested that Senator Rossi and I stage a duel or flip a coin to break this tie,”Gregoire said. “But I prefer to count every vote.”3

On December 2, Democrats declared that they would seek an unprecedented statewide hand recount of the 2.9 million ballots cast in the governor’s race. Two weeks later, with the hand recount still unfolding, Democratic-leaning King County, which includes Seattle, announced that it had discovered more than 500 ballots that were mistakenly rejected during the initial count. By the end of the week the number was 700.4 A few days later, Republicans sued to block King County from reconsidering the ballots. The next day, the state Supreme Court unanimously rejected the Democratic Party’s lawsuit to force counties to reconsider about 3,000 invalidated ballots. Republicans warned that Democrats might try to get the Democratic-controlled state legislature to decide the election.

On December 22, King County finally completed its hand recount. Unofficial results tipped the race to Gregoire, giving her a 10-vote lead. After the state Supreme Court found that King County could reconsider the roughly 700 mistakenly rejected ballots, ruling this time in favour of the Democrats, Gregoire’s lead grew to 129. Finally, Secretary of State Sam Reed declared Christine Gregoire the governor-elect on December 31, 2004. She was certified on January 11, 2005, and took the oath of office on January 12. But it wasn’t over.5

Not surprisingly, the Republicans rejected the decision. They filed a lawsuit in Chelan county, one of 39 counties in which they sought to have the election result overturned because of alleged irregularities that permitted convicted felons to vote (see p. 76). The case was finally dismissed in June 2005, essentially because the Republicans were unable to prove that all felons or ex-felons voted for Gregoire as claimed.

Every step along the way, partisan considerations had entered into the interpretation of the results. For example, while the number of eligible voters was established at 3,335,714 (out of a population of 5,908,684 and potentially almost four million residents of voting age), the number of actual voters on November 2 kept changing with each recount. On election day, the number of votes for governor was 2,805,930; on November 24 it was 2,808,342; finally, on December 30, the manual recount gave a total of 2,810,058 ballots.

The number of votes did not exceed the number of registered voters statewide. However, in King County, the largest county (with almost 900,000 votes) and the last to report its manual recount, the final number of votes exceeded the number of registered voters by 1,200. The discrepancies in King County were mainly due to absentee ballots, which voters sign and mail before the election, and provisional ballots, which voters fill out when they go to polling places other than their own or where their names do not appear in poll books. According to the Seattle Times, ballot checks varied considerably across the state, as did standards for signature verification, which were inconsistent in the 39 counties.6 In other words, not only do methods of collecting votes vary tremendously from one state to another, but even inside each state there are multiple discrepancies.

Seattle Bench: The 2004 Washington election showed that the self-proclaimed greatest democracy in the world has little clue about how to organize elections.

In the wake of the ballot problems in the 2000 general election in Florida, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002. HAVA provided $3.9 billion for the 50 states to address the problems created by inconsistent voting procedures, antiquated voting equipment and sloppy vote counting. But despite HAVA, problems occurred everywhere in 2004 – such as the case, reported by the Seattle Times, of a box containing 98 Washington state ballots shipped by mistake to Alaska!7 Without institutional reform that brings uniform procedures across the 50 states, such embarrassments or worse are certain to recur, particularly in a tight election.

Looking north

Although there is no chance that they will do so, our American neighbours could look north for guidance. The Canada Elections Act sets out extensive provisions for compiling and reporting election results. As stipulated in the act, “unmarked, double-marked, improperly marked ballots or ballots that identify the elector must be rejected, as must any ballot not supplied by the deputy returning officer.” The act also specifies instructions for problematic ballots which the deputy returning officer accidentally neglected to sign prior to the vote. The deputy returning officer’s signature is the only one required, in contrast to the United States where individually registered voters must sign a portion of the ballot.

This is possible because, unlike in the United States, Canada’s pre-election registration procedures provide the officials in charge of the election with a clear list of the voters and their addresses, which is mailed to the voters. Moreover, in Canada, if candidates or their representatives raise objections, the deputy returning officer is required to record these for future reference and make a decision so that the count can proceed. According to the Canada Elections Act, the ballot boxes containing the ballots and other materials must be sealed and conveyed to the returning officer. I might add that no boxes containing ballots from the Maritimes ever ended up in the Yukon – at least, no newspaper in Canada reported such a mistake in recent elections.

There is much talk of bipartisanship in the United States these days. However, until both the Republican and Democratic parties get beyond endless infantile accusations and manage to take a bipartisan approach to their voting system, 21st-century Americans will likely continue to vote in fragmented, incoherent 18th-century elections.

 

Notes

1 Daniel Lazare, The Frozen Republic (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996) and The Velvet Coup (New York and London: Verso, 2001).

2 Bill Miller, “Supreme Court Affirms Lack of D.C. Vote,” Washington Post, October 16, 2000.

3 Ralph Thomas, “A Governor by Christmas?”, Seattle Times, November 24, 2004.

4 Keith Ervin, “Up to 162 Ballots Missing,” Seattle Times, December 17, 2004.

5 The Economist called the Washington state situation the “Kiev” of the Pacific Northwest, in reference to another case of electoral mayhem that happened the same year in Ukraine (“Kiev of the Pacific,” The Economist, January 13, 2005).

6 Christine Willmsen and Susan Kelleher, “Ballot Checks Vary Widely across State,” Seattle Times, December 19, 2004, p. A-1.

7 Keith Ervin, “Provisional-Vote Flaws Revealed,” Seattle Times, January 5, 2005.

 

Claude Couture is Professor of Social Sciences and Director of the Canadian Studies Institute at Campus Saint-Jean of the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

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About the Author

Claude Couture
Claude Couture is Professor of Social Sciences and Director of the Canadian Studies Institute at Campus Saint-Jean of the University of Alberta in Edmonton.




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