Fix the Electoral System

The Nation, November 15, 2004 | Go to article overview

Fix the Electoral System


Before most votes were cast in the November 2 presidential election, and before any of them were counted, tens of millions of Americans worried about whether the nation's patchwork of systems for casting and counting ballots would break down as badly as it did in 2000. Six in ten Americans surveyed by the Associated Press said it was unlikely that a clear winner would be known by the morning of November 3. That opinion reflects the fact that four years after a close vote in Florida created a thirty-six-day recount battle that ended without all the votes being counted, America has done little to fix its broken electoral system.

The first problem is unequal protection: America has no uniform standard for registering voters, resolving challenges to those registrations, designing ballots, guaranteeing access to the polls, creating a paper trail when votes are cast, counting ballots and, in the case of a close election, recounting them. Instead, there is a collection of fifty-one different systems with often radically different rules. "It's a tragedy in many ways that the standard for accountability and integrity and objectivity is better in many Third World countries than in ours," says former President Jimmy Carter, who explains that the Carter Center, which monitors elections around the world, could not do so in the United States because of a lack of consistent standards and a lack of commitment on the part of both major parties to cooperate with the monitoring process.

The first major problem in effect guarantees the second: A system with inconsistencies rooted in the theory of states' rights, which made possible the original sin of slavery and the secondary sin of segregation, lends itself uniquely and unquestionably to contemporary manifestations of Jim Crow politics. …

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