Change in all things is sweet.
With just days to go until the most important election of the century, or of our lifetimes, or of the history of the world, depending on how you want to look at it and who you are listening to, the tension is getting almost too thick to cut with a hatchet (never mind a scalpel). And as poll after poll hammers home numbers implying the results of the election a foregone conclusion, the excitement, anxiety and desperation in both camps seem to be focusing in not so much on what the results of the vote will be, but on whether those results will be accurate and untainted.
A fraud-free election clearly benefits the winning party, as it can then claim a mandate to govern the people without question; an election shrouded in suspicion of fraud, however, logically benefits the losing party, as it can then claim grounds for questioning the results, the winner’s legitimacy, and even legal action, not to mention whining rights for the next four years. Thus as the shouts grow louder and the nail-biting intensifies the closer we get to November 4, it is important to examine not only the allegations of voter fraud, but also who is making them, and what their true motives are. It is important, too, to ask how can we still have a system that allows such instances of fraud or potential fraud to exist? For no matter what party benefits from the fraudulent actions or allegations, the ones who truly lose are always the same: us.
Anyone conscious during the last two presidential elections knows that voter fraud, in all its permutations, whether investigated and prosecuted or relegated to the eternal rumblings of perceived paranoid conspiracy theories, is indeed threatening to “destroy the fabric of our democracy,” as John McCain stated in the last presidential debate,* even if only in our minds. The power of suggestion should never be underestimated, and the repeated accusations and subsequent widespread belief that the elections in this country are less than a fair and accurate reflection of the will of the people is a demoralizing force with many ramifications on the electorate, and thus the functionality of our democracy. In other words, when people think their vote doesn’t count, they don’t vote. Studies have shown that in actuality, occurrences of voter fraud, i.e. ballots cast under a false name or identity, are “extremely rare,” one study “found a voter fraud rate of .00004 of a percent, saying, ‘Americans are struck and killed by lightning about as often.’” So if voter fraud is not actually happening, why all the fuss about it, and what can we do to change the negative psychological impact it has on our country and at the polls?
For one thing is clear: while we vociferously defend and project our democratic ideals, both at home and to the world, nearly half of eligible voters in the US do not vote. This can be attributed to many reasons, among them disenchantment, indifference, contentment, socio-economic and hereditery factors, multiculturalism, education, even weather. It is a complex study to determine why, for instance, voter turnout in Western Europe averages 77%, in Australia 95%, while in the United States it approaches 50%. But regardless of the complexities, the numbers still beg the question: if voting is a critical aspect of democracy, and nearly half of our electorate does not vote, does that not imply that nearly half do not want democracy? And if not, what do they want?
Democracy is, simply put, rule of the people, and that power to rule is exercised through free elections. If people are not voting, then they are relinquishing their power, and they might as well live in a monarchy. But are they relinquishing it out of a rejection of democracy, or a rejection of our implementation of democracy? If the former, then we need to revisit some of our basic assumptions regarding our society. If the latter, a better system for registering all legal citizens of the US to vote, once they reach eighteen or have achieved legal status through naturalization, would patently go a long way to improving our voter turnout numbers. Why not make it mandatory? We should not need these voter registration drives that allow for countless inaccuracies and fraudulent registrations. Eliminate the need, and you eliminate the fraud and accusations of fraud that help strip our electoral process of legitimacy. Voting is compulsory in Australia, and many other countries, with varying levels of punishment for those that don’t comply, resulting in the highest voter turnouts in democracies on record. Perhaps mandatory voting is an infringement on the freedoms that we jealously enjoy here in the US, but would mandatory voter registration be such an infringement? Yes or no, we could certainly go a long way toward involving more of the population in the electoral process by revamping the voter registration process and educating the public on their right, and civic duty, to vote.
Even more in need of an overhaul than how we register voters, however, is how we actually vote. Voter fraud may not be happening as much as we think, but voter suppression, intimidation and ballot error absolutely are; even if voters make it to the polls, there is no guarantee that they will successfully cast their ballots in the current system, which is already being stretched to the breaking point under the weight of higher turnout this year. How do we fix this? With the same ingenious tool that allows you to read these words from the other side of the world: the internet. Is it so far-fetched to think that we, the country that produced eBay, online banking and income tax e-filing cannot conceive of and implement a method of voting via the internet?
If part of the reason that millions of people don’t vote on November 4 is that it’s a Tuesday, or the lines are too long, or the weather is bad, if part of the reason that hundreds of thousands of ballots do not get counted is because absentee ballots arrive too late, or disappear, or machines malfunction, if part of the reason that untold numbers of potential voters get turned away at the polls is because they don’t have the right kind of ID, or they are minorities intimidated by a police presence or threatening partisan behavior, it can all be resolved by pulling our antiquated, haphazard, disparate and frankly desperately broken system of casting and counting ballots into the twenty-first century with an internet-based system that employs state-of-the-art encryption and identification technology, that produces a verifiable paper trail in quadruplicate, and that provides the results in seconds, versus hours, days, or even months. Sure, there are challenges to creating such a system, sure it raises questions about vulnerability to hackers influencing election results, yes, it absolutely would require the best minds and talents that this country possesses to architect a system that could be viewed as trustworthy by all the people, of all political affiliations, while also protecting our right to privacy. But given that our current system is so riddled with problems and errors, is already so vulnerable to partisan influence and electorate distrust and is quite literally incapable of handling the number of voters in a growing population, could it really be worse? And the benefits of moving both a voter registration** and a voting system to the internet would be so huge, that if successful, we just may see some real upward movement in the number of people who participate and therefore fulfill the promise and potential of our democracy.
“If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.” So wrote Aristotle in 350 B.C. Over 2300 years later, are we not finally ready to make this a reality here in the US? Whatever happens four days from now, we must keep trying to make fears of voter fraud and voter suppression part of the past. Every vote should count. Except Mickey Mouse’s, and of course, Homer Simpson’s.
* In his debate statement, McCain was referring to one particular organization, ACORN, which is now under federal investigation on charges of nationwide voter registration fraud, though there are numerous potentially more egregious examples of fraudulent voter registration, and, even worse, voter suppression, underway, that are not getting near the coverage that ACORN’s activities are. Check these out for more information:
Group’s Tally of New Voters Was Vastly Overstated: New York Times, 10/23/08
McCain’s Warning About Voter Fraud Stokes a Fiery Campaign Even Further: New York Times, 10/26/08
A Myth of Voter Fraud: The Washington Independent, 10/28/08
Election fraud fears: the cure: The LA Times, 10/27/08
Vote watchdogs warn of troubles on election day: The LA Times, 10/30/08
Party Lawyers Ready to Keep an Eye on the Polls: The New York Times, 10/27/08
Black America may get a president before black Americans get to vote: The Guardian, 10/27/08
** Many states already have some type of online voter registration in place, but ideally we will move toward all 50 states adopting similar systems so that voter registration can be updated easily as people move about the country.