Friday, October 27, 2006

voting

English parliament, c. 1300.

I don't have much time right now, but I'd like to throw something out for consideration. There was an article in the New York Times today about how some Democrats are concerned that African-American voters may stay away from the polls, discouraged by past problems when trying to vote.
"This notion that elections are stolen and that elections are rigged is so common in the public sphere that we’re having to go out of our way to counter them this year,” said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist.
The article refers to many difficulties black voters have had to deal with:

Long lines and shortages of poll workers in lower-income neighborhoods in the 2004 election and widespread reports of fliers with misinformation appearing in minority areas have also had a corrosive effect on confidence, experts say...

She [an African-American woman from Milwaukee] traced her own skepticism to one afternoon two months before the last presidential election when she overheard several young black men saying they were not going to vote because they feared being arrested at the polling station for their unpaid parking tickets. The neighborhood had been flooded with fliers from the Milwaukee Black Voters League, a fictitious group, saying that even minor infractions like parking tickets disqualified people from voting...

Mr. Walters said that episodes of voter suppression that were dismissed in 2000 as unfounded recurred in 2004 and were better documented because rights groups dispatched thousands of lawyers and poll watchers. In addition, the first national data-tracking tool, the Election Incident Reporting System, offered a national hot line that fed a database of what ended up to be 40,000 problems.

“All of a sudden after 2004, these weren’t just baseless or isolated incidents,” Mr. Walters said.

The type of misleading letter sent this month to 14,000 Hispanic immigrants in Orange County, Calif., threatening them with arrest if they tried to vote, was hardly a first. In 2004, similar fliers appeared in predominantly black neighborhoods in the Pittsburgh area, on official-looking letterheads. The fliers said that because of unusually high voter registration, Republicans were to vote on Election Day, and Democrats were to vote the next day.

Fliers sent in Lake County, Ohio, told people that if they had registered through the N.A.A.C.P., they could not vote.

What I always wonder when I hear these stories is whether and how seriously they are investigated and prosecuted. I understand there is a Justice Department investigation of the Republican candidate for congress whose campaign was responsible for the Orange County letters, but usually one hears of the complaints and not the investigations.

There are several things our country needs to do to make our system a true democracy. We need to address gerrymandering and campaign financing in a serious fashion. We also need to prosecute anyone who interferes with someone's right to vote and make them serve real jail time. Jim Crow should have died a long time ago.

Republicans are at the forefront of denying people -- mainly the poor and minorities -- their right to vote. Everything from requiring ID cards to rejecting voter registration cards because of the thickness of the paper they were printed on appears to be nothing more than an attempt to disenfranchise sectors of the population that, when the vote, vote Democratic. The standard conservative answer to these charges is that voter fraud is as big an issue as voter intimidation, and favors the Democrats. I have always believed this to be a red herring, but hey, I also agree on aggressive prosecution of voter fraud when it exists. Just don't use that as an excuse to keep people from voting.

Some countries, such as Australia, require people to vote by law. If they don't vote, they have to pay a fine. I have always found this to be a bit on the coercive side of things, but I must say it's encouraging to see that in some countries the political class is not actively trying to discourage the carrying out of the democratic process. We could learn from their attitude.

I'm not being partisan here. When they get the chance, Democrats are as happy to use funky accounting with their campgain money and to absurdly gerrymander districts as Republicans are. But who stands to win from disenfranchising the least powerful members of our society?

6 comments:

Brian Cubbage said...

I wish that I knew the answer to your question about how seriously accusations of voter intimidation and fraud are investigated and prosecuted. The question, I suspect, has a lot to do with exactly whom is doing the investigating and prosecuting. If it's the federal Department of Justice, it's hard to say, but I wouldn't be especially optimistic. One way in which the DOJ under Bush/Gonzales has quietly tried to undo civil rights protections is to starve the civil rights division of the DOJ of funding. That way, they get to say that all of the great-sounding laws are on the books, but then quietly fail to enforce them.

I have a simpler question about your post, though. You say that our current system isn't a "true democracy." What is a true democracy, in your opinion? A democracy in which citizens are systematically deprived of their right to participate in civic life (by voting) is obviously undemocratic. But why does true democracy preclude gerrymandering and our current campaign financing system? Furthermore, would a system of compulsory voting be any more or less democratic than a system of voluntary voting?

I think that you might be right, but I am curious about what your operative understanding of true democracy entails before I draw any conclusions.

Liam said...

Brian -- I think you were right to call me on at least my choice of words. A "true democracy" sounds too absolute, as if one crosses a line and there you are, in a true democracy. Democracy is really a process in which we try to take the power out of the few and privileged and spread it around a bit, so that people really can vote for their own interests and for a just society.

There's a lot of elements here, and it doesn't mean allowing for a tyrany of the majority. I like the fact that the entire congress can't be changed at once, for example. There are institutional changes that have to be made, but there are culprits outside the institutions as well -- the media, of course, but also voters themselves. How we educate people, of course, affects how people process information, so there are institutional factors there as well.

I don't know if I'm explaining myself well.

Like I said at your blog, I blame Madison Avenue for everything. I feel that if people can actually be influenced by a twenty-second ad of somebody standing in front of a flag with stirring music in the background, then we are as an electorate so infantile and easily manipulated that we will vote not for our interests or according to just policy but rather for whoever can afford the best and the most effective ads. Obviously we need people to learn how to think, but we also have to do something about the money question here.

The question of possibilities of choice is another. Because of gerrymandering and the electoral college, there are only a limited number of places in the country where races for the House of Representatives and the presidency are competitive. That's one way to get people to feel they actually have a choice.

crystal said...

When I think of a true democracy, I think of Athens at the time of Pericles ... even then only male citizens could vote, and not slaves. The word "idiot" comes froma Greek word meaning a person who isn't interested in politics :-)

Jeff said...

Hi Liam,

Sorry I haven't checked in lately. I have a heck of a time trying to post on this beta version when I'm not on Windows XP.

I once dated a woman whose father told me in all seriousness that only property owners should have the right to vote, because the property-less will always vote themselves largesse out of the federal treasury.

I had to do a little bit of research to find out that there were several delegates at the constitutional convention who felt exactly the same way. If memory serves me correctly, it was George Mason and Ben Franklin who cautioned against that and talked them out of it.

With all the computer-aided gerrymandering going on, and the flood of money into the process, I'm afraid that perhaps the propertied class has wound up getting what they wanted all along.

Brian Cubbage said...

Liam, you mention advertising, and political advertising in particular, as a force that oftentimes works against the public interest. To what extent do you think that the state should use its power to foster a higher level of public discussion?

Redistricting is a complicated issue. On the one hand, it's obviously used as a tool to distinguish invidiously between racial and ethnic groups; some redistricting gets struck down by courts for just this reason. However, one could always argue that, as long as the redistricting isn't obviously done with the stated purpose of restricting an individual's voting rights, there's nothing wrong with it, even if it all but ensures that candidates of a particular party will win. A lot depends on how you construe "voting rights." For instance, does having the right to vote imply that you should have a right to expect that the candidate for whom you vote has just as good a chance as not at winning? I doubt that; if that's the case, then looking back it appears that, for instance, people who voted for Bob Dole for President in 1996 had their voting rights infringed upon because, objectively speaking, he didn't stand a snowball's chance of winning. If all it means is that your vote will count, then even minorities in allegedly gerrymandered districts don't have their voting rights infringed upon, so long as their votes aren't also fraudulently undercounted, they aren't illegally barred from the polls, etc.

I take it that if redistricting is an injustice, then that's because it creates an unfair burden of societal persuasion upon members of political minorities. One could always argue that whatever Democrats are left in Tom DeLay's district always have one way out: Persuading their fellow citizens in their new district to share their point of view. But should they have to shoulder that burden all on their own? Should congressional districts instead be drawn in such a way that citizens don't face insuperable obstacles in building political consensus? What if race is a factor: Should redistricting take account of sociological facts regarding race, or shouldn't it?

Liam said...

Brian, good points. I think a lot of the problems cannot only be solved top-down through legislating and court decisions. What can the state do to foster a higher level of public discourse? Several things, though it's always a question whether or not they can be effective. Of course, we need a better educational system. Campaign financing that restricts the amount of TV advertising might influence the amount of time and energy that go into the more mindless ads. On the positive side, more debates, voter informational pamphlets, etc., all would help.

Redistricting is complicated. Some things are no-brainers, though. It should always been done by an organization that is independent and at least bipartisan (if not tri- and quadra-partison). It should not be done at irregular intervals, as in Texas. Obvious attempts to artficially concentrate or split up a demographic that consistently votes one way. When I say "artificially," I mean absurdly shaped districts.

I think when it is time to draw up new districts, they should be above all geographically consistent. Cities should be kept as whole as possible. Counties should be kept as whole as possible. Of course people in DeLay's district will usually vote Republican and people in my district (Harlem and Columbia University) will vote Democratic.

Does Gerrymandering restrict individuals' right to vote? Perhaps not. Of course it's a very American way to go about things when you only ask about the individual and not about how masses tend to work. I think the fact that manipulation is more subtle than actual disenfranchisement makes it seem less of a problem to our individualist outlook on things. Still, even if desenfranchisement turned the election in Florida in 2000 and very possibly in Ohio in 2004, manipulation made it close enough for that to happen.