Let the People Win the Election

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Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot
November 16, 2000

If Al Gore decides to negotiate a compromise with George W. Bush to settle the question of who will be our 43rd president, he should get something for it. And it is only fair to the public that any settlement will help ensure that this kind of deadlock not happen again, and that every citizen will have the opportunity to vote and have their vote properly counted.

On the first point, eliminating the electoral college is the obvious first step. There is no legitimate justification for an institution that was intended to keep the people from directly deciding who would govern them. And why should a vote from Wyoming have five times as much influence as a vote from California in choosing the president? That is literally what the electoral college provides, simply by allocating one elector for each member of Congress. It also provides for the possibility, now seen to be very real, of a President that did not win the popular vote. The country should directly elect the president, just as it does every other elected officeholder.

But we have to go well beyond this. The confusion in Florida revealed an astonishing degree of voter disenfranchisement through negligence and incompetence. In some counties, nearly ten percent of the people who went to the polls didn't get their votes counted properly. While it is impossible to eliminate all errors, discarding this many ballots makes a mockery of electoral democracy. Not to mention the 68,000 ballots that were missing from the first count in New Mexico.

The nation should implement standardized and simplified balloting forms and procedures that will minimize the possibility that anything like this can happen again. This may involve high- tech solutions such as computer voting, or low-tech paper ballots, but we have to be able to design a ballot that allows people to clearly and simply express their preferences and be counted.

It also should not be an ordeal to vote. It is inexcusable to have lines of three or four hours, which were reported in many precincts across the country, especially in an election in which nearly half the population stays home. If we need a few more dollars to hire election workers, then this would be money well spent. Voting should not be a privilege for those who have time to wait in line.

We should go further on this front. With today's technology, there is no reason that we cannot have universal, same day voter registration. If a person shows up at the polls with a valid identification card, they should be able to vote. The thirty-day waiting period between registration and the election, which is required by most states, serves no purpose other than denying the right to vote to a large part of the electorate.

In addition to the problems of negligence and faulty procedures, there are also people who are deliberately disenfranchised. At the top of this list are convicted felons, who are prevented from voting in many states. In Florida, this rule has disenfranchised nearly a quarter of the African- American male population. There is no legitimate reason for denying the vote to people who have paid their debt to society, and are otherwise allowed to resume a normal life. If a drunk driver can actually become president of the United States, then someone convicted of a felony should at least be able to vote for president.

It is also long overdue that the people living in Washington, DC had the same voting rights as the rest of the nation. The United States should not be the only nation in the world that denies the people living in its capital city the right to representation in Congress, and the right to make its own laws.

Finally, the deliberate harassment and abuse that has been directed against African-American and Latino voters must come to an end. If the states can't do it themselves, then we may need federal supervision. Preventing people from exercising their right to vote is a serious crime and should be treated as such.

These basic reforms would not do anything to address the larger problems of money corrupting our politics. They are simply procedural reforms that would bring us closer to the basic principle that every citizen has the right to vote, and have their vote counted. The Republicans would resist these changes, since anything that makes it easier to vote or expands the electorate tends to help the Democrats. But they would be hard-pressed to put forth a legitimate argument against these reforms.

Al Gore could emerge from this mess as a hero, by winning something more important than the presidency: procedurally clean and fair elections in the world's richest democracy.


Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot are Co-Directors of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C.