A stable democracy requires more than just votes
Published January 17, 2004

The 2000 presidential election, so oft discussed and debated, seems to have heralded a string of election fiascoes that are only getting worse. Our voting system seems to lend itself to abuse, or at least gross incompetence, and no matter which side of the political spectrum you happen to find yourself, you can probably point to an example of flagrant partisanship on the other side in regards to districting or voting. It's generally considered something akin to sacrilege to suggest changes to the system of government laid down in the Constitution, but perhaps the time has come.

In the 2000 election, there were many people, both Democrats and Republicans, who spoke about how the resolution of the recount in Florida and the eventual Supreme Court decision that led to President Bush's inauguration was a signal of the strength of our democracy, as though it was an achievement that Americans weren't flooding the streets with guns to fight for their chosen leader. In truth, however, the election was a fiasco. The rest of the world looked on in stunned disbelief as the most powerful country on Earth was deadlocked around the issues of hanging chads and intimidated voters. Americans should not have been proud; we should have been disgraced.

I vividly remember a moment during that long month when the results of the election were in the air. President Jimmy Carter was on a television news program talking about his work with the Carter Center, a non-profit organization founded by the President to promote peace and development in the world. When asked how his organization might have observed or helped record the 2000 election, as they do for many developing countries, Carter said simply that the Center would not have come. The US electoral system is simply too archaic, too open to abuse, mistakes, and inaccuracies.

Any system can be suborned or abused, but there is no reason to encourage it through inaction. The current system should be reformed, possibly scrapped and replaced entirely. The federal government should enact a set of universal standards and enforce them rigorously. Access to polling places should be improved, and polling officials should be paid and instructed on how to help voters and how to ensure the neutrality of the polling place.

The electoral college, already a broken relic of a different age, should be scrapped and replaced with a direct, popular vote for President, the same system used for every other political office in the country. The electoral college was created both to limit the ability of the people to elect an idiot to the highest office in the land and, in a time without televised debates or even national newspapers, to give the voters the opportunity to elect someone they trusted--an elector--to go to Washington and decide for them who should be President. This is obviously no longer the case; we no longer allow an elector to vote his or her mind. The electoral system creates two problems: first, the winner of the popular vote may not win the actual vote, which is just plain silly; second, voters in states that are not considered "battlegrounds" have the power of their votes diminished.

Allow me to explain what I mean by that last claim. If I am a Republican, and I live in a strongly Democratic state like New York, I can reasonably assume that the state--and its electoral votes--will go to the Democrats. My vote will have no effect on the outcome of the election unless some miracle occurs and the Republicans win the statewide contest. Thus, there is less reason for me to feel the need to bother; my vote is essentially going to waste, though it might in a direct, popular election have swung the outcome on the national scale.

Our next stop is Congressional districting. It's been a long time since the term gerrymander was invented, but it's become the norm in today's political climate. The most egregious--and possibly damaging--example may be the GOP redistricting of Texas that led the Democratic legislators of that state to flee to Oklahoma and other places to avoid a vote, but neither side is by any means free from blame. The usual excuse is that this is the way the game is played, that the other party will do the same when they come into power, but that rings hollow.

Gerrymandering is leading to states where there is, essentially, no possibility of the other party coming back to power, not without major and unlikely demographic shifts. Especially if the ruling party is going to start redistricting whenever they please, they will be able to nip any changes in the bud and secure their dominance with whatever outrageous and ridiculously-shaped districts they can concoct. This is stupid, and it further corrupts our political system, leading to stagnation, abuse, and apathy.

Political districts should be established by regulated, non-partisan agencies, either at a state level or federally, if necessary. Partisanship is to be avoided at all costs. It does not seem unreasonable to let the people decide the makeup of their government. Districts should be based on population, and population only. A simple computer program could divide each state into geographically centralized, equal population blocks. After each ten-year census, the calculation would be swiftly and simply redone, with clean, fair results.

This is not just an academic argument. Under the current system, it is simply no longer reasonable to assume that the people who are in office were elected fairly, nor that they represent the kind of choices the population might make if districting and voting practices were standardized. What I am saying is that this current system generates doubt in the political process, which naturally leads to doubt about the legitimacy of our elected leaders.

There are millions of Americans who believe that President Bush and the Supreme Court stole the 2000 election, and that he and his administration are in power illegally. Whether you believe they are right or wrong, our political system should never generate such doubt! Let's tell our leaders that it's time for change.