Decline of The West
by George Szamuely

November 10, 2000

Vote Fraud, American-Style

Imagine the response of the US Government if, following a national election, the President-elect of some country out of favor in Washington turned out to be the candidate who came in second. Having received more than 190,000 fewer votes than his opponent he, nonetheless, declared himself the winner. He owed his victory, he would explain to apoplectic US officials, to a bizarre election-rigging mechanism concocted in the eighteenth century to prevent the exercise of direct democracy. According to this Electoral College scheme, though a Presidential candidate may win less than 50 percent of a state’s votes, he would nonetheless take its entire allotment of electors. Moreover, some states have too many electors while others have too few. The number of electoral votes assigned to each state is the same as its total number of representatives both houses of Congress, Therefore, Wyoming with 0.18 percent of the US population has 0.93 percent of the votes in the Electoral College. California, on the other hand, with 12 percent of the US population has 10 percent of the votes in the Electoral College.

Imagine the outrage in Washington, imagine the self-righteous fury of the US Government-funded "democracy watchdogs," if in addition to "winning" the election, the candidate coming in second received the handful of votes that put him over the top in the state presided over by his brother. The United States would charge fraud and demand fresh elections. Washington would indignantly recall its Ambassador and threaten sanctions. The US media would be on hand with chilling stories of vote rigging and nepotism. Any further elections, the US Government would warn, must be under the auspices of such reputable and disinterested bodies like the US-funded International Republican Institute, the US-funded-National Democratic Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, US AID, and Freedom House. In the view of these venerable organizations the US electoral system is self-evidently the best in the world, the one lesser countries should seek to emulate.

George F. Will, who can of course always be counted on to whip himself into a lather about all manner of brutes and dictators abroad, smugly dismissed criticisms of the electoral college system: "There never has been an Electoral College victory by a candidate who lost the popular vote by a substantial margin." Well, that’s all right then. If you lose by an insubstantial margin, you can still be President. What is an insubstantial margin? "Only simple-minded majoritarianism," Will scoffs, "holds that ‘the nation’s will’ would be ‘frustrated’ and democracy ‘subverted’… were an electoral vote majority to go to a candidate who comes in a close second in the popular vote count. In such a case, the framers’ objective – a President chosen through state-by-state decisions – would be achieved." This, of course, is rank pomposity and nonsense. First, when people vote for President they choose the leader of the nation as a whole. It is only when they vote for Senators and Congressmen that they decide who best will represent their State’s interests. Second, how can it be democratic for a candidate who may have received less than 50 percent of the state’s popular vote to take all of the state’s electoral votes? Slobodan Milosevic should have introduced the American electoral system into Yugoslavia. He would have stayed in power and kept George Will happy at the same time. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell made the drearily predictable defense of the Electoral College system on the grounds that it elevates the significance of small states: "If we did away with the Electoral College, an awful lot of states would never get a visit from a presidential candidate." But this is already the case. In election after election, the largest states – California, New York and Texas – are all but ignored by the candidates. Moreover, very few states are ever seriously in play. Most elections boil down to a fight over half a dozen states. Would it be so terrible if candidates were forced to campaign in states where, well, many people resided?

Recently, the Wall Street Journal website, indignantly reported that Russian parliamentary deputies had proposed sending observers to the US to monitor the Presidential elections. The deputies also suggested the establishment of a foundation "to preserve democracy in America," as well as a Voice of Russia radio station modeled on Voice of America. The Wall Street Journal writers were obviously not amused by this. Yet the Russians were obviously giving us a taste of our own medicine. It is extremely annoying to have other countries lecture us on our shortcomings. Others have much to learn from us, while we have nothing to learn from anyone. "It’s worth juxtaposing this feigned concern for American democracy," spluttered the Journal, "against the shoulder shrugs that the most blatant violations of democratic rights much closer to home receive in the Duma and the Kremlin these days. Russia’s record when it comes to real threats to democracy isn’t good."

Perhaps. But the United States has little to be smug about. The Florida vote already seems to be at least as tainted as anything that allegedly took place in the recent elections in Yugoslavia. Three lawsuits have been filed in state and federal court challenging the results of the election. In Florida 19,000 votes in Palm Beach County have been disqualified because they were "double-punched." Voters intending to vote for Vice President Al Gore found the ballot so confusing they ended up voting for Pat Buchanan instead. Buchanan got 3,407 votes in the county, as against 789 votes in neighboring Broward County and 561 in Miami-Dade County. Voters in Palm Beach County have now filed a lawsuit claiming they were deprived of their voting rights on account of the confusing design of the ballots.

Not surprisingly, Gore campaign chairman William Daley fully supports the lawsuits: "Already citizens of Florida who believe their votes were discarded and did not have the opportunity to participate fairly in this process, they will go to court. And I would assume that the courts will take a serious look at what may be an injustice unparalleled in our history." Daley has now called for a hand recount of the ballots in Palm Beach, Dade, Broward and Volusia counties – some 1.78 million votes. Dade County includes Miami; Broward is home to Fort Lauderdale; Daytona Beach is in Volusia. Kendall Coffey, a Democratic attorney, has suggested holding a new election in Palm Beach County. Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey has called for fresh elections in all of Florida. Shades of Voijislav Kostunica or Alejandro Toledo!

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, representing George W. Bush’s interests in Florida, calls for respect for Constitutional proprieties even if it means thwarting the democratic will of the people of Florida. Baker claims the Palm Beach County ballots had been reviewed before the election by both campaigns: "There were no complaints until after the election…. And let me tell you something else about that ballot: That ballot was posted, as required by Florida law, in newspapers and public places all over the state of Florida. Not one complaint was received about that ballot, which… was approved by a Democrat who was elected. A Democratic election supervisor approved that ballot. And we haven’t heard one gripe about that ballot until after the voting took place." Daley responded by attacking the Bush campaign for its supposed insouciance about "the disenfranchisement of thousands of Floridians." "If the will of the people is to prevail," Daley declared, "Al Gore should be awarded a victory in Florida and be our next President." Speaking of Vice President Al Gore, he has hinted that perhaps the entire electoral system of the United States needs to be called into question – now that he is so near the Oval Office of course. "What is at issue here is the fundamental fairness of the process as a whole," he declared on Wednesday, "Because of what is at stake, this matter must be resolved expeditiously but deliberately and without any rush to judgment."

But there are other doubts about the Florida vote. Black voters allege that state troopers, who had set up a roadblock near a polling station, deliberately harassed them. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is demanding that Attorney General Janet Reno launch an investigation into "reports that black voters were turned away at one Florida polling place because of an alleged ballot shortage, that some received inoperable ballot cards and that others were disqualified by election officials who claimed their race did not match official voting records." According to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, missing ballot boxes and voter intimidation kept members of minorities from voting. The NAACP claims to see "a pattern of deliberate attempts to suppress the level of African American votes."

Then there are stories circulating about five ballot boxes at three elementary schools and at a gated community in Palm Beach County. One box contained miscellaneous papers and no ballots. A clerk allegedly told police ballots had been taken out of the box and put in another one. Another ballot box was discovered to contain notebooks. A polling booth volunteer claimed the locked ballot boxes were used to carry supplies. And now the Republicans are threatening to demand a recount in Iowa and Wisconsin. The fight over the election could drag on for months. Happily for us, neither Vladimir Putin nor Jacques Chirac is demanding that these issues be resolved quickly, on point of sanctions being imposed.

Incidentally, whatever happened in Florida and whatever the inequities of the Electoral College system, they pale into insignificance compared to the conspiracy of the two main political parties to exclude everyone else from their exhilarating division of money and the spoils of power. No other country imposes so many hurdles on third parties. The most important events in the election calendar are the televised debates. Yet only the candidates of the two main parties are allowed to take part. The Commission on Presidential Debates stipulated that debate participants had to enjoy 15 percent support in the polls. 15 percent is well beyond the reach of any politician without the financial resources of a Ross Perot who can buy up hours of media time.

The polls themselves are conducted by the media organizations that are themselves the direct beneficiaries of the political parties. The millions that the two major political parties raise from their donors, as well as the federal matching funds they collect, are spent on television advertising. The money goes directly into the pockets of the giant media corporations. The media therefore have every interest in flattering the two major parties and keeping out interlopers. It is very unlikely also that the United States would be particularly understanding towards another country if it imposed electoral hurdles on independent parties as numerous and as burdensome as the ones on the statute books here. Most states require third parties to gather tens of thousands of signatures for a petition to be on the state ballot. There are also often strict deadlines on the gathering of such signatures. A candidate for president running in the Democratic or Republican primary can get on the ballot simply by paying a filing fee, although some states do require that a primary candidate submit a petition signed by a not especially large number of voters. By contrast, a candidate running as an independent in the general election will have to collect thousands of petition signatures in each state to be on the ballot.

Independent presidential candidates and third-party nominees need approximately 750,000 valid signatures to be on the general election ballot of all 50 states. For Democrats and Republicans, access is virtually automatic. Democratic Party candidates require 25,500 signatures and Republican Party candidates 54,250 signatures. Thirty-two of the 41 states that hold Presidential primaries require no signatures from the major-party candidates. These ballot restrictions were enacted for the sole purpose of denying third parties and independent candidates access to power. In 1924, only 50,000 petition signatures were required to place a new party on the ballot in 48 states. During the 1930s, laws were passed to make ballot access increasingly more difficult. New parties had to gather more and more signatures and to file for application earlier and earlier in the campaign year. In the aftermath of George Wallace’s remarkable run, ballot-access became extraordinarily difficult.

Let’s hope those Russian observers learn how not to emulate the American system.

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