With the help of big brother Jeb, the Republican Party machinery of Florida, a mainstream media obsessed with “chads” — the bits of paper that voting machines cut from the ballots — and a one vote majority in a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives, George W. Bush hijacked the 2000 presidential election.
The racism, corruption, incompetence, and archaic and uneven voting processes exposed by this election are certainly bad enough. But, as more Americans are realizing, underlying all of these travesties is the fundamental truth that real democracy in the U.S. is a myth.
The popular vote is a charade. Even formally, the U.S. is not really a democracy. Faced with the true-or-false question, “Do U.S. citizens have a constitutional right to choose their president?” most people would pick “true.” But they would be wrong. Individuals are guaranteed only the power to cast ballots on an equal basis with other voters in their electoral districts.
Article II of the Constitution gives the state legislatures, not the people, the authority to elect the nation’s Head of State. This is the now-infamous Electoral College system, which places states’ rights ahead of the democratic rights of the people. Hence the ability of the College to trump the popular vote, as it did in this election, in which Al Gore garnered the most votes.
Hence, too, the explicit disenfranchisement of citizens in places like Puerto Rico. Because they live in a “territory” rather than a state, these millions of people have no voice in Presidential polls. Despite this, they are subject to the draft, and thus forced to serve in any war the president — Commander in Chief of the military — drags the country into.
The U.S. voting process is not designed to reflect the will of the population — the overwhelming majority of whom are working people — but the interests of big business. And this sector is guaranteed a win long before people get to the voting booths — above all, by depriving voters of any meaningful choice of candidates and issues. Given this, it is no surprise that nearly one half of eligible voters refused to participate in the 2000 elections (there being no penalty for opting out).
Segregation still monstrously alive. The election showed once again that every problem in U.S. society is felt disproportionately by people of color. Foul-ups, fraud, and lack of access stymied all types of people in the 2000 elections, disabled and elderly voters prominent among them. But particularly disenfranchised were African Americans and immigrants of color, in Florida and around the country.
In short, the election exposed the fact that the 1965 Voting Rights Act, won with the blood of civil rights workers in places like Selma and Montgomery in Alabama and Jackson in Mississippi, is a hollow shell for far too many of the nation’s people.
Some of the discrimination against racial minorities is built into the ballot mechanism. Poorer counties, with large numbers of people of color, conduct elections using antiquated processes and equipment which is difficult to operate. Flagrantly prone to error, they inevitably result in rejected uncounted ballots. More affluent “white” counties can afford more up-to-date machinery.
But technical difficulties are just the tip of the iceberg. Far worse is the despicable harassment, intimidation, and outright denial of the right to vote faced by people of color. In Ohio, thousands of people from the mostly Black east side of Cleveland got to the polls only to be sent home because their voting locations had changed. There is a simple remedy for this — called provisional ballots — but these were withheld.
In Florida, in scenes straight out of 1960s Mississippi, cops harassed Blacks on the way to vote. Then, huge numbers of African Americans who did get to the polls were turned away once they arrived, including 10 percent of newly registered students from one Black college. In Miami-Dade County, those African Americans who finally managed to get as far as marking a ballot were four times as likely to have them thrown out as were white voters!
Blacks and other people of color were under-registered in Florida to start with, thanks in part to the efforts of a privacy-invading, data-selling operation called ChoicePoint, a company with close ties to the Republican Party. The state hired ChoicePoint to delete from its voter rolls the names of individuals who, according to state law, didn’t belong on them. ChoicePoint came up with a list of 173,000 names to expunge.
After it turned over its information to election officials, ChoicePoint was forced to admit that 8,000 of the people it deleted as felons had actually been convicted of misdemeanors, which wouldn’t deprive them of the right to vote. And, of course, because of inequities in the criminal justice system and society at large, people of color make up a disparate number of the ranks of felons. ChoicePoint developed a “corrected” list, but acknowledges that the accuracy of even this revised list can’t be assured.
Impact still to be felt. People across the country were furious about the election disaster and everything it revealed about the undemocratic, discriminatory nature of the electoral process. But for the most part, their ire failed to materialize in mass protests.
Some of the blame for this belongs at the door of the corporate media. Initial discussion of the treatment of voters of color and the appropriateness of the Electoral College was soon swamped by the obsession with chads and then the hour by hour dissection of the courtroom contest.
Moreover, big-name commentators and newscasters continually reassured the world that although this whole election thing was messy, it was actually proof of the system’s soundness. And they practically bestowed a halo on the Supreme Court, which they cheered as the final, objective, and elevated guardian of the principles of our wonderful democracy.
Even more responsible for the relative lack of protest, however, are the Democratic Party and the leaders of the labor and mass movements who toe its line. In the first days of the fiasco, Democratic Party honchos made it clear to luminaries like Jesse Jackson and John Sweeney, head of the union movement, that they didn’t want to see fired-up masses in the streets. Some rallies erupted nonetheless, especially in Florida. And, as time dragged on, union and other movement leaders did encourage demonstrations — but it was too little, too late.
The disaffection that people feel, however, isn’t going away. As time goes on, it will be part of the foundation for new efforts for civil rights and social justice — and, hopefully, for growing recognition that the system is rotten not just around the edges, but at the core.
Where to from here? Any movement which springs up to fix what’s broken in the U.S. electoral process will have lots of material to work with! It can start by learning from the rest of the world, where multi-party elections, proportional representation, and preferential voting are common.
Reforms like these aren’t the final answer. As long as our total social and economic structure serves big business, our political structure will too. But these changes would make our elections more representative and democratic. Here are seven proposals:
- Limit corporate control through public financing of campaigns. How fair is it when the representatives of only two parties, both of them loyal to Wall Street, hold 99.9 percent of elected offices? To give somebody else a fighting chance, we must end the ability of big-money donors to determine the winners. We need to abolish corporate funding for the few and instead institute public financing for all candidates who can demonstrate a minimum of public support.
- Get rid of laws that restrict ballot access for minor parties. The thresholds for getting ballot status for minor parties need to be lowered, and the myriad of other laws that conspire to preserve the Democrat and Republican duopoly over the ballot need to be swept away.
One example: Some states require that people register a party affiliation in order to vote in primary elections. This restricts independents and those who want to vote for minor parties without official ballot status in two ways: unaffiliated people cannot vote at all, and those who do choose a party get ballots that include candidates only from that party. Voters should be able to vote for any candidate in any primary race, regardless of affiliation.
Another of these anti-third-party impediments is Oregon’s statute ORS 248.010, which has its dusty origins in legislation enacted explicitly to protect the Democratic and Republican parties from competition. This ridiculous law denies electoral status to any political party whose designation includes even one word in common with another party already approved for the ballot. Thus, the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) finds itself barred from running candidates in its own name, since the Socialist Party already has ballot status in Oregon. FSP is challenging the law by suing the state of Oregon and has attracted important support from unions, community groups, and Left organizations — including the Socialist Party.
- Replace first-past-the-post voting with proportional representation, which divides up legislative seats among parties based on what proportion of the total vote they each get. This would deliver some representation to minor parties who get a significant fraction of the vote but don’t come out on top.
- Establish preferential voting. This would enable U.S. voters to rank each candidate, as is already done in Australia and Ireland, and would mean that every ballot would matter — not just those cast for a Democrat or a Republican, which is currently the case.
- Upgrade and standardize processes and equipment nationally. No more second-class treatment for voters, many of them of color, in the poorer areas!
- End the disenfranchisement of prisoners and ex-prisoners. Thirteen states permanently take the vote away from people who have been convicted of felonies. In Florida, for example, more than 400,000 ex-felons, about half of them Black, could not vote in 2000. There is no good reason to deny the vote to people who have served time, especially given the racist nature of criminal justice in the USA.
- Lose the Electoral College. The Electoral College is an 18th century invention put in place to give the Southern slave states proportionately more weight in the selection of the president. It worked; the presidency was occupied by slaveholders from Virginia for all but four of the first 36 years of this country’s existence. Although the College has been modified since then, it still prevents the population from directly electing the President.
The people of the U.S. need not, and should not, cling to the élitist baggage left to us by the founding fathers. Instead, it’s past time to emulate the best of their revolutionary spirit, and shake things up!