Broken Ballots

With the primary election process now firmly under way across the US, we should consider whether the world’s only super-power, so eager to impose democracy on Iraq, should first mend its own broken ballot.

Fewer and fewer Americans now vote in a system that is archaic, corrupt, crooked, unpresentative, and undemocratic. The possibility looms this November of another debacle similar to the 2000 result, in which the newly elected president had 530,000 less votes than his opponent.

What will Washington say to Baghdad then? But already the Grand Ayatollah of Iraq, Ali Husseini al-Sistani, has spoken. In early January he rejected Uncle Sam’s proposal for Iowa-style regional caucuses to select the next parliament as not being democratic or “transparent” enough.

Events bore him out in Iowa. Despite media applause for doubling the previous turn-out, it was still only a puny 15-20% of the state’s Democrats (nobody knows for sure because Indpendents were allowed temporary, instantaneous registration as Dems).

And while TV pundits annointed Sen. John F. Kerry as the party’s candidate, Iowa has picked that position for both parties in 11 contests since 1976 only six times. It has chosen the president only twice during that time. And if Kerry gets the nomination, he will be the first US senator since Jack Kennedy to do so — and that election was rigged. Iowa is not representative; nor is New Hampshire. Only tradition, and a state law passed by its tiny legislature, restricts the first primary vote to a small New England enclave that once nominated Pat Buchanan. It has no major industrial cities, fewer blacks (4%) and Hispanics, and more elderly than average.

And now its over, the Democrat voters have selected 1.5% of the nominees’ delegates, and in both ballots, one half of one percent of have voted out of the US total. Yet to read the US media, this was democracy at its most profound.

Historically, New Hampshire certainly does not deserve its coveted position at the start line. When the founding fathers met in Philadelphia in the summer months of 1787 to frame the constitution, New Hampshire’s delegates didn’t arrive until it was half over. (Rhode Island’s never went at all — so it wasn’t drawn up by the original 13 states.)

Many Americans believe they live in a relatively young country. This is true if the comparison is China or Greece, but the U.S. remains the world’s oldest democratic republic and many modern democracies did not even exist in 1776. This antiquity is beginning to show.

The Electoral College, which constitutionally stands between the popular vote and the presidency — as it was originally meant to — may again thwart the people’s choice. If it does not, plenty of alternative obstacles remain: the recent, ruthless gerrymandering of congressional districts by Republicans; the increasing disenfranchisement of convicted felons — for life in 13 states; and the new voting machines, already exposed as unreliable and potentially vulnerable to corruption.

The constitutionally required decennial national census, and the subsequent re-drawing of gerrymandered electoral districts by the party in local power, is a political tradition in America. It even gave the word “gerrymander” to the world. But since 2001, reigning Republicans, helped by new computer software, have contrived grossly distorted districts that have reduced incumbent defeats to just one percent and even created new conservative districts.

These districts are so devoid of geographic or logical shape, one was called an “upside-down Chinese dragon,” and another, the “Z” mark of Zorro. One congressman in Pennsylvania lost his district entirely — even his own home was drawn around, and was forced into a mini-primary with a popular fellow Democrat in the neighbouring constituency. He lost.

This manipulation has deeply undemocratic results. It transfers the power of election from voters to party officials, and creates electoral apathy in locked-up districts. It also helps extremists to win office; they know the seat is safe or is overwhelmingly partisan one way or the other. This advent of extremists, such as the Bible belt representatives, is a major reason for the rancorous atmosphere in Congress.

Another undemocratic historical legacy is the nation’s deliberate political tilt toward small states. It deprives millions of proportional representation in the U.S. senate, and favors the South, which has historically disproportionately dominated national politics. The tilt will show up this year as the South embraces three favorite Southern subjects: the military, religious morality (and marriage), and coded white racism.

Disenfranchising convicted felons is a growing injustice. Thirteen states, five in the South, impose a lifetime ban, so that 40 years of blameless living may separate a citizen from a car theft at age 20, yet that 60-year-old still cannot vote. The total thus disenfranchised — denounced as “undemocratic” by Canada’s Supreme Court when it restored prisoners’ votes in 2002 — now approaches five million here.

Another scandal seems inevitable over the new electronic ballots. They rarely provide a paper record, are vulnerable to hackers and fraud, and their unreliability was demonstrated in, of all places, Florida earlier this year. Touch-screen machines returned 137 blank ballots in a state legislature special election where 12 votes decided the outcome.

Throughout the entire electoral process runs the vast sewage system of money, a rottenly corrupt flow that taints everything it touches. This has at least received wide media coverage, while the flaws discussed above remain mostly ignored.

But here is a forecast: The coming Big Election Scandal of 2004 will be front page news.

CHRISTOPHER REED reported on Western America for over 20 years for the Guardian of London and is now a freelancer in California. He be reached at: