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World Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card November 7, 2004

Fixing Elections

Do we need to reform our system of elections?

Certainly after the 2000 elections there was a lot of talk about abolishing the electoral college, since it brought into office a President who had not received even a plurality of the popular vote.

There was also a lot of talk about "disenfranchisement" and systemic problems that kept the poor and minorities disproportionately out of the voting booth.

That's ostensibly why we had so many lawsuits by Democrats prior to the 2004 election, in an attempt to make it easier for voters to register and to make the enforcement of voting rules more lax.

That's also the excuse they used for trying to keep Republican poll watchers away from precincts where minority voters might feel "intimidated."

Poll watchers were not invented in order to intimidate voters -- they were invented in order to eliminate cheating. And whatever danger there is of "intimidation" from poll watchers' taking names and verifying a voter's right to vote is trivial compared to the near certainty of an increase of cheating in the absence of poll watchers.

The proper way to counter intimidation from poll watchers is to encourage and teach voters that they have nothing to fear.

It's embarrassing that the Democratic Party has concluded that the proper solution to electoral problems is litigation instead of training their voters to follow the rules and fearlessly exercise their franchise. If you sue, you might lose.

If you teach voters their rights -- and responsibilities -- then everybody wins.

It's also cheaper.

And it starts with the assumption that minority voters are smart enough to learn the same voting rules and procedures that everybody else follows. Any other assumption smacks of condescension at best, bigotry at worst.

*

What about the electoral college? Most of the time its outcome falls right in line with the popular vote. But sometimes it doesn't.

Some think that it's not necessarily a bad thing.

For one thing, such elections are invariably quite close. It happens when one candidate wins by a wide margin in some states, while the other candidate wins with a smaller margin, but in states with more electoral votes.

The candidate with the larger popular vote but the smaller electoral vote may have an intense but localized following, while the winning candidate's voters might have been less enthusiastic but more widely spread out.

Also, the electoral college gives a slight edge to states with low populations, which tend to be either small or agrarian, or both.

This was intended from the start. Remember that the goal of the founding fathers was not democracy, but rather to have a mechanism that would generally give American the best possible leadership.

The bias toward smaller and agrarian states, and the bias against highly localized candidacies, both serve to put a brake on rapid change. The candidate who builds up white-hot enthusiasm in select areas will find it just slightly harder to win. And the voters who tend to be more traditional and less easily swayed by fads have just a little more weight in the process.

But only a little. Just enough to tip the balance in extremely close contests.

Are these traits of the electoral college advantages or disadvantages? Strong arguments can be heard on both sides.

I think it's more pertinent to look at the consequences of switching to direct election.

Right now, under the all-or-nothing rule, third party candidates are ruthlessly suppressed. Now and then a third-party candidate has had the strength to win the electoral votes of a state or two, and somewhat more often, a third-party candidate has won more votes than the margin between the two major-party candidates, so that people can say he "cost" one of the candidates the election.

Most of the time, though, voters recognize that a vote for a third-party candidate is "thrown away" -- it will have little impact on the outcome, because the president is chosen by fifty separate winner-takes-all elections. The result is that third parties either die away or linger on as debating societies.

Direct elections, however, would encourage voters to consider third-party candidates precisely because it would be easy to get enough votes to keep either major-party candidate from getting a majority.

Under the present system, that would throw the election into the House of Representatives -- where the voting is far, far less democratic than the electoral college.

Or we'd have to revise the Constitution completely and come up with another system for resolving close elections -- Australian ballots, for instance, where you vote for your first, second, and third choice (and so on) so that if your first choice gets eliminated early in the count, your vote goes to your second choice. It's not a bad system, because it always gives you a winner without recourse to some adjudicating body.

But you can actually forget it, because the two parties would have to agree to get such a change through Congress, and they're not likely to do it if they perceive it (correctly) as a threat to the two-party system.

Another problem with direct elections is that they would encourage widespread electoral cheating.

In 2000, for instance, there would have been no point in cheating in most states. Only in Florida and New Mexico was the vote count close enough that cheating would have paid off, and only Florida had enough votes to change the national outcome. So it was only in Florida that a serious attempt was mounted to steal the election after the fact.

But without the electoral college, cheating would have been useful everywhere. In Utah, where there are many precincts that don't even have enough Democrats to staff the polls, somebody might realize that if you could get a few dead Republicans to vote the way that dead Democrats so often voted in Chicago in the old days, that extra Utah margin might make a difference in a tight race. In Massachusetts, the same idea might occur to Democrats.

Most people don't succumb to temptations like that. But some do. The electoral college removes the temptation in most places, most of the time; direct election would make it a temptation everywhere, all the time. So unless there were a radical change in human nature, cheating would be bound to increase.

Getting rid of the electoral college often can sound like a "good idea" -- until you start considering the alternatives.

*

There is an election reform we desperately need, however.

It's time to eliminate gerrymandering.

In the old days you used to have to be subtle about gerrymandering -- adjusting the boundaries of congressional and legislative districts to guarantee that one party or the other dominated year after year.

But when the courts started allowing -- or demanding -- the formation of "majority-minority districts" that would dependably elect members of racial minorities to Congress, it became almost virtuous to jimmy the boundaries so that the outcomes were statistically assured.

The House of Representatives was designed to be the most representative part of the federal government, able to respond every two years to changes of opinion.

Instead, because most seats are gerrymandered into being "safe" for one party or the other, it is almost impossible for fifteen or twenty seats to change in any given year.

Not only that, but most Americans now live and vote in one-party districts, where it almost doesn't matter whether the opposition party puts up a candidate to oppose the incumbent.

The remedy is simple and obvious: When congressional districts are redrawn after every census, only three principles should be considered: Coherence, compactness, and equality.

Coherence means that voters in a city like Greensboro would never be divided, but would all vote in the same congressional contest. Existing jurisdictional boundaries would be respected as much as possible, so that county lines would also matter.

Compactness means that congressional districts should be as nearly round as coherence would allow. Long snaky districts would be illegal.

And equality would require (as it does now) that congressional districts within a state contain very nearly the same number of voters.

The moment such ideas are proposed, they are invariably decried as "racist" because they would eliminate those districts that safely put black Congressmen into office year after year.

But the truth is that the present system is arguably much more racist. It safely segregates black voters into a few districts, so that they have no influence anywhere else.

This means that in most states, white congressional candidates don't have to woo black voters, and therefore when they are elected they don't have to do a single thing to keep black voters happy. Only the congressmen from those "safely black" districts owe anything to black voters.

There was a day when having "safely black" districts was the only way to get African-Americans into Congress.

But in recent decades, election after election has proven that white voters will vote for black candidates in large enough numbers for them to win even in districts that have very few black voters. In other words, there would be blacks in Congress without gerrymandering. There would probably be fewer of them (for a while, anyway), but it's worth asking this question:

Wouldn't the interests of African-Americans be better served, even with fewer blacks in Congress, if most congressional districts contained enough black voters that their votes could swing an election?

Instead of having a handful of guaranteed black seats, with all the rest of the House of Representatives owing nothing at all to black voters, we'd have fewer guaranteed black congressmen, but most of Congress would care very much what black voters thought of them -- or risk losing the next election.

It doesn't matter, though. Because the group that benefits most from the present anti-democratic system of fixing elections in advance is: incumbents. And by definition, the only people who could change the system are: incumbents.

*

Most people don't have a clue about whom they're voting for in local elections. For every Billy Yow, whose "principles" everybody knows, there are a dozen candidates whose names mean absolutely nothing to most of the voters.

Some of those voters, responsibly enough, don't vote at all in a race about which they know nothing.

Some voters vote a straight party ticket, trusting that their party will have chosen worthy candidates for office.

But that has no effect on non-partisan races like those for school board or judge.

USA Today carried a story from Santa Ana, California, where a candidate who never campaigned, about whom nothing was known, defeated a school board candidate who campaigned hard, was highly qualified, had kids in the school system, and had the endorsement of the teachers' union. He was well-liked ... by the few people who cared enough to find out anything about the school board race.

But the qualified, active candidate lost.

His name was Martinez.

The do-nothing winner, who has no children, was named Rocco.

Both names are "ethnic," but Martinez is a Spanish name and Rocco is not (it's Italian), in a state where anti-hispanic feelings can run high.

Anybody who thinks bias doesn't play a role in non-partisan elections is not connected to reality.

Take the nonpartisan races in Guilford County. In almost every race where it was possible to choose between a man and a woman, the woman won. Why? Because there are lots of voters who, knowing nothing else, will vote for the woman candidate because they assume she'll be "nicer" and less likely to be a wacko.

This may or may not be a fair assumption, but it exists, and it affects the outcome of elections. It may be part of the reason why people with strongly held values will elect a judge whose record is obviously not in line with the their beliefs -- just because she's a woman and that's the only thing most voters know about her.

What can we do about the "ignorant vote"?

In the Academy Awards, they simply deny people the right to vote in obscure categories like "short documentary" if they can't prove they saw the film at special screenings.

But in America we have a proud tradition of guaranteeing committed ignoramuses the right to vote.

So the only solution is to make sure you aren't one of the ignorant ones. There are websites for most candidates, informing you of their record, their beliefs and principles, and their experience and other qualifications. It's quite easy to find out information about everyone except the handful who don't bother to put up a website.

This year, we simply eliminated from consideration those nonpartisan candidates who didn't bother to put up a website at all. It's so easy and cheap to get a website that anyone who doesn't do it obviously doesn't want the public to know about their record; we assumed they had something to hide and voted for someone else.

In most cases, though, there was a website, and we went into the voting booth with lists of the decisions we had made based on consideration of what the candidates said about themselves.

There are also informative websites put up by neutral (or sort of neutral) groups.

Next election, we'll make sure that the Rhino's website contains links to all the candidate sites and others that provide useful and accurate information. Or you can use Google and find out a lot on your own.

Don't ever be guilty of casting a vote based on ethnicity or gender alone. Voter ignorance is voluntary -- and easily remedied.

*

Are there errors in vote-counting? Absolutely. In every election, it's a well-known fact that a certain number of votes are spoiled or lost by accident, without any malice or negligence by the people running the system.

It is also a well-known fact that in all but the very closest elections, it can safely be assumed that such glitches apply to all voters evenly, so that the outcome will be the same whether the lost votes are counted or not.

Even in Florida in 2000, with incredibly close numbers and a highly selective recount, no credible and impartial recount changed the outcome.

Sometimes, though, an election might be so tight that a statistically insignificant difference between the spoiled ballots for the two candidates might actually become crucial.

In effect, then, the election would have been decided by a coin toss.

In such cases, recounts are helpful.

Lawsuits are not.

The example of Richard Nixon in 1960 is one that candidates who put the interest of the public above their own ambition would be wise to follow. It was no accident that razor-thin margins in three states deprived him of a victory that might have been his.

In all three states, the voting process in certain areas was controlled by Democratic machines with a history of cheating. Few historians doubt, for instance, that the Illinois vote was dishonestly counted -- Chicago's Daley machine had delivered the necessary margin of victory and it was unlikely that 1960's was by some wild coincidence the first honest vote count in Chicago's recent history.

Richard Nixon could have demanded recounts and court examination of the voter rolls, and most historians think he would have been in the right; whether he would have won his court cases or not is harder to predict, since the evidence was largely in the possession of his political enemies.

The point is, we'll never know, because Nixon foresaw the consequences of such an attempt and declined to pursue the matter.

He thought it was better to let his opponent take office in good order, for the good of the country, than to fight for a victory he was probably cheated out of.

John Kerry is not quite the same noble example -- he clearly lost the popular vote and President Bush's margins of victory were not close enough for recounts to do Kerry any good. Still, Kerry could have stretched things out for a while if he had wanted to -- the lawyers were on the ground and ready to roll. It was a wise and statesmanlike thing for him to decline to do so.

It would have been an even wiser and more statesmanlike thing for Al Gore to do the same in 2000. We could have been spared some of the bitterness of the past four years if he had thought of the country before his own ambition, and stepped aside. Rather like Democrat Tilden in 1876 and Republican Nixon in 1960.

But Gore has paid the price. Instead of being seen as a revered elder statesman, he made himself into an icon of a sore loser. I've heard many people complain that the 2000 election was stolen; but I've heard far fewer long for Gore to be president. The Draft Gore movement in 2004 was ... nonexistent. Even though he had won a plurality of the popular vote only four years before.

Whereas John Kerry will return to the Senate having lost by more than three million votes, yet with no decrease in his stature. It's a lesson that I hope future candidates in tight races will remember.

Copyright © 2004 by Orson Scott Card.


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