Wednesday, September 13, 2006

What (really) Threatens American Democracy.

On Tuesday, November 7, 2006, American will vote for the mid-term elections (so called because they take place every two years, which means that half of them occur midway through a presidential term). Voters in the United States will elect members of the 110th Congress which means all of the 440 members of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate.

As always in the U.S. , national elections are also the opportunity for multiple elections for local, city, and county public offices, which means it can become a headache.

These days it is the time of primaries in many states. Yesterday, voters in nine states and the District of Columbia went to the polls Tuesday for primary elections. This year’s primaries have been also a test to gauge the voting system and the new voting machines in many states.

The Observer in a very interesting article claims that the system has actually worsened since the debacle of 2000. The New York Times goes as far as saying that America's democratic system is simply starting to fail.

Not in terms of its democratic ideals, or some takeover by a Neocon cabal, but by a simple collapse in its ability to count everyone's votes accurately and fairly
Here’s an illustration of voting problems in Montgomery County, Md where the “election officials "forgot" to deliver the computer cards needed in each precinct to run the touch screen voting machines.”. (NPR)

Here is indeed the core of the problem:

The problem is simply that America has no national standard for tallying the votes in its elections. Apart from a few federal mandates to safeguard broad constitutional rights, it is left up to local officials to sort out the details on the ground. This means in one state a machine might be used. In others a simple paper ballot and a pen. Or it varies from county to county. In one small town a touch screen machine might be on hand, a few miles away other voters might use a punch ballot and in the next county after that you might use a pen. Or pull a lever. Or countless other complex ways to do what should be so, so simple. It also means in one place there is a solid (paper) record of a vote that can be recounted, while in others, it is all down to famously fallible machines and their electronic memories.

In some places you can't vote if you have a prison record. In others, you can. In some states you need identification to vote. In others you don't. In some a drivers' licence will be enough, in others it won't. All this is fundamentally a violation of the basic genius of democracy: it should be simple and uniform. In America that is simply not true.

That does not even take into account problems of corruption and partisanship at a local level. It seems that the new Diebold machines are not necessarily reliable. The more sophisticated, the more complicated it gets. In fact, a computer scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has been one of the more outspoken critics of the reliability of electronic voting (he even wrote a book about it, called Brave New Ballot).

Paul Harris from The Observer is right – it is not a conspiracy, it is simply the failing of an entire system and at a time when elections can be won by a few votes, this is something to worry about.

What American democracy needs is simple though - strict national standards and simple paper-based voting machines…. Bu it might take a couple more Florida or Mexico controversies for Congress to address the problem. In the meantime, lawyers are probably going to hit the jackpot.

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