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Opinions are fun. My friends tell me I am someone with lots of opinions and that's fine since I don't get mad at others when they disagree with me. In this same spirit I am interested in hearing yours views as long as you are able to share your views without boiling over. I look forward to hearing from you. I tend to write in the form of short essays most of the time, but contributions do not need to be in this same format or size. Some of the content here will date itself pretty quickly, other content may be virtually timeless, this is for the reader to judge.

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A good sandwich and a ballot                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Jan/08/2013 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Politics & Gov, Watching America,

I still remember the day well. During a cold January morning, the intercom in my high school chemistry class while sparking static requested that my teacher send me to the front office. Without hesitation my teacher pointed a finger at me and told me to get going. Not being unfamiliar with trouble, there was the usual array of sarcastic comments such as “what did you do this time” as I weaved between desks toward the classroom door. It’s true, I had been in trouble before, but while walking to the office I could not think of what I had done this time.

Upon arriving at the office lobby I was greeted by my father who as he signed me out simply said “put your coat on.” I didn’t know if someone had died, or if I was about to die, but this did not seem good for me. My father kept conversation to a minimum and I noted that we were driving into town rather than home, I was definitely befuddled. Ultimately we pulled into the parking lot of a great deli where after being seated my father ordered a pastrami Rubén sandwich for each of us. Concluding a great lunch he took me to the public library where he stood me in the line for registering to vote. Having turned 18 the previous day this was beginning to make sense to me.

While in line my father explained to me that this is the most important responsibility I have as a citizen. When I vote, if my candidate wins and things go well, I can say “I was right.” If my candidate wins and things go poorly, I can “oops, I won’t do that again.” If my candidate loses, then when things go badly I can say, “see, I told you.” …etc… He went on to remind me that our country is really only a true democracy for a day or two out of each year and that the most important responsibility I have is to vote while I have that chance. He reiterated that if I don’t vote I have no right to complain or brag about anything regarding public policy because I did not participate. With the flip of a coin I selected my party affiliation getting no guidance from my father and have not missed an election in all the many decades since. I guess the lesson stuck.

The national election of November 2012 was a particularly difficult one for me to follow in the media. Wading through all the negative rhetoric was not what disturbed me; it was the actual election process. Despite the importance of the election, some people were dissuaded from voting by lines as long as 9 hours. I understand when people camp out 9-12 hours for the best deal on a new iPhone or some special “black Friday” sale. Nevertheless, spending those long hours waiting to vote offends me. I was fortunate not to have that same challenge since I swore after I left to Army to never stand in a long line again. (While in the Army I had occasions where I had to stand in a line to merely find out which line to next stand in.) Besides long lines, there were a number of other maladies that plagued the voting process.

When referencing the voting problems in his acceptance speech, President Obama said off-handedly “by the way, we have to fix that.”

As the country that tries to champion democracy across the globe, it should be a wake-up call that so many foreign observers to our elections gave our polls and voting processes poor grades.

There are a lot of things that can be pointed at for our voting process failure. Broken voting machines, untrained poll workers, political misbehavior at polling sites, complicated ballots and general voter apathy were key things I saw. Fixing these things is important, but does not go to the core of the problem. Our voting issues aren’t confined to just the machines and staff at the polls; it is about the political culture for voting. Our voting culture needs to be expanded and revitalized.

I believe that we are dealing with two seemingly contradictory, but in fact related events. While voter turnout swelled unexpectedly in many states and districts, burdened by weak voting systems the overall national numbers appear to be either even with, or slightly down from the previous election. Voter apathy may be a greater threat to democracy than any apparent fraud. This apathy is only going to be exacerbated by long lines and inefficient voting processes. Who wants to stand in a line for hours when they are unsure their vote even counts? Supporting this argument is research from the 2012 election showing that voter turnout was higher in swing states and districts where presidential candidates campaigned vigorously and an individual voter was convinced that their vote mattered. Additionally, other supporting research showed a link to declining voter turnout in the proliferation of “safe” districts and states; telegraphing the message that the winner was a foregone conclusion and your vote does not really matter.

One of the key forces in this apathy factor is the Electoral College. We like to think that our democratic elections are driven by the principal of one-man, one vote. In truth the Electoral College is more of a federal system driven by geographic and regional boundaries. As currently implemented, a presidential candidate can win the Electoral College without winning the popular vote. This is because 48 of the 50 states use a “winner-take- all” approach. For states such as California, Texas & New York, A candidate need only win by a small majority and they receive all the elector votes. This process disenfranchises the voters of smaller states along with groups such as the 40% republican minority in California.

I would personally like to see the Electoral College scrapped, but that would take a constitutional amendment; far too arduous a task to consider in our current political climate. The easier approach would be for states on their own to change their electors to proportionally represent their general vote or their districts. Maine’s electors have been proportional for years and Nebraska made the change in 1996. As currently implemented a presidential candidate could win only about 24% of the popular vote, but do it in the right states and get enough electors to win the election.

Unfortunately, the national popular vote bears no legal or factual significance on determining the outcome of the presidential election. The United States is currently the only country that elects a politically powerful president via an Electoral College and the only one in which a candidate can become president without having obtained the highest number of popular votes in the sole or final round of popular voting. Ensuring that voters feel their vote counts is critical to participation. There are many who would argue that circumventing the Electoral College would mean campaigns would focus more on big cities and population centers than rural communities. Unfortunately, this is probably true, but the current system has the ability to disenfranchise entire blocks of states with big cities.

Fundamentally, to increase the quality of the voting experience we need to increase voter turnout. One possibility here is to shift the election by 5-10 days blending it with the Veterans Day holiday. Moving the election to a federal holiday means that the election is more accessible and limits its conflict with work, school and other regular life obligations. Still more important, blending the election with a federal holiday means more people would be available to work the polls and potentially create more polling locations. The extension of this is the possibility to run the election over more than one day since it would be tied to a federally observed holiday. Multi day elections are used in many other countries.

Historically, holding the election on the first Tuesday in November after the first Monday in November is built around outdated restrictions. According to 1792 laws, this allowed for the electors to be voted on 34 days prior to their meeting on the first Wednesday of December to select a president. With harvest concluded and the constraints on travel in an agrarian society, this made good sense in its day. Even if you believe in the Electoral College, with the winner-take-all approach that most state legislators have implemented along with modern information movement, we can be more flexible about voting dates.

There has been a lot of talk about better technology for the election process. I am a technology geek, but in truth feel that it does not belong in our polling booths. If a touchscreen voting machine fails, the line can get very long waiting for repair or a viable replacement. There is also the burden of cost for high-end systems that would be used so seldom. Variations on scan-tron forms like so many of us used for standardized testing in school are an excellent solution because they are so “scalable”; If the line grows at the polling station, you simply get out more forms, pencils and clipboards to keep the process moving. When the ballots are collected, the latest technology can be used at centralized locations to optically scan and count ballots in the most efficient manner possible.

The lure of technology can be intoxicating. There is no doubt that since we can file our taxes and do banking in a secure and electronic means, it could also be done for voting. Nevertheless, voting remotely on a smart phone is a mirage and will not strengthen democracy. Making something easier, doesn’t always make it better. Voting is the closest thing America has to a civic religious ritual; to be compelling and effective it must connect us to other Americans. The communal obligation of voting is essential to feeling vested in America. Voting is a duty that comes with gratification once completed. If voting is done independently, this experience is not shared and legitimized by the community.

I have to admit to being a hypocrite to my words. While I believe strongly in the value of participation voting, I have used a mail-in ballot for many years. The last time I voted in person, I presented my ID to an elderly poll worker who scanned past my name numerous times while the line got longer and longer. Out of frustration, while reading the list upside down I pointed out my name so I could receive a ballot and ultimately vote. On relaying this story to my coworkers at the time I found this to be an unfortunately common malady of the process. Apparently, we are so desperate for anyone who will work at a polling station that we have dropped any semblance of having some minimum standard despite the best of intentions from these volunteers. I am heavily involved in the leadership of a volunteer organization and I understand the lure to take “anyone.” I have also learned that succumbing to these volunteers seldom has the desired benefit; in fact it often backfires. Ever since that frustrating election experience many years ago I have been using a mail-in ballot.

There has been a lot of talk about “Voter ID” in recent years. Some groups speak in terms of needing ID to prevent voter fraud. Other groups say that voter ID would make voting inaccessible for others. I am really kind of perplexed by both arguments. To my knowledge, every time a potential voter shows up at a polling station they are required to show either their sample ballot or some ID. Once those are validated from the list of eligible voters, they are given a ballot and their name is checked off. If this or some variation is universally the process, we are already requesting ID and the only real opportunity for fraud would be in collusion with the people working at the polling station. It is important to ensure that we are implementing one-person-one-vote. The many votes per person and the hindering of any votes per person would seem to need collusion by election officials and those working the polling stations.

Fundamentally, I believe the biggest thing hindering our election process from better participation is access and apathy. Access is a function of limited polling stations, long lines and our progressively busier lives making an inefficient voting process less and less likely to be participated in. Apathy seems to be a function of the campaigns and their statisticians. After much analysis, these statisticians determine that certain districts and states are “swing”, and others are “safe.” The voters living in “swing” areas get lots of campaign and media attention and the voter turnout has been proven to go up convinced that their vote matters. In safe areas, voters are led to believe that their vote does not really matter because the decision is a foregone conclusion. With this kind of pressure, without some critical local race driving voters to the polls, it is easy to see why these potential voters would simply choose to stay home. It is easy to argue that we shouldn’t have apathetic voters showing up at the polls, and I agree. For me the bigger challenge is how to get more voters to be legitimately engaged in the process. I see the biggest hurdle to voter apathy as a consequence of the Electoral College. This is something that states could solve within their own legislative bodies, but even that has political forces bearing down on it. In California for example, its 55 delegates all go to the democratic candidate with great consistency. With the state house being democratically controlled, change is not likely since it would give more credence and voice to the other party…winner-take-all will unfortunately persist for the foreseeable future.

We have a lot to work on with our elections. Processes that may have seemed right and practical 200 years ago don’t necessarily work as well now. Minorities, women and citizens who don’t own property have all gained the right to vote during the past two centuries. Now we need to look at revising the process so more people can feel that their vote is meaningful. I just hope we can make these changes before the concept of democracy has faded too much and our new voters have lost all interest.

Three weeks before the recent November 2012 election my oldest son turned 18. Shortly after his birthday we talked about the importance of voting and discussed the differences between a pure democracy and a republic. Leveraging the internet he registered to vote a day or two later in time to participate in the upcoming election. Learning of his voter registration I did what has become a father-son tradition in our family; we went out for pastrami Rubén sandwiches.

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Richard Miller
An organization that is strong and stable and is ready to commit time, money, and patience will be more apt to reap rewards than the quick-hitting opportunist.
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