Shouting Over the Din
By BOB HERBERT
We know that Al Gore got more votes than George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, and that of the people who went to the polls in Florida, more had intended to vote for Mr. Gore than for Mr. Bush. But Mr. Bush became president.
In 2004, Mr. Bush outpolled John Kerry by more than three million votes nationally. But widespread problems encountered by voters in Ohio, especially those who had intended to vote for Mr. Kerry, raised doubts about who had really won the crucially important Buckeye State. If Mr. Kerry had taken Ohio, he would have won the White House with a minority of the popular vote, as Mr. Bush had done four years earlier.
These are not scenes from a flourishing democracy. If you’re looking to put a positive spin on the current state of politics and government in the U.S., you’ve got your work cut out for you.
Voters will head to the polls tomorrow for the most important off-year election in recent memory. But instead of a concerted effort to make it easier for Americans to vote, the trend in recent years has been to make it harder, through legal means and otherwise.
Tens of thousands of voters in Georgia will very likely be confused tomorrow. A judge struck down a state law requiring voters to show a photo ID before casting their ballots. But up to 300,000 voters have received letters from the State Board of Elections telling them that a photo ID is required.
A veteran Democratic congresswoman from Indianapolis, Julia Carson, ran into trouble when she tried to vote on primary day by displaying her Congressional identification card. It had her picture on it, but she was told that was not enough. She needed something issued by the state or federal government that had an expiration date on it.
Eventually, as The Washington Post tells us, she was allowed to vote after a poll worker called a boss.
This was a congresswoman!
With each new election comes a new round of voter horror stories: Hanging chads. Eight- and nine-hour waits in the rain. Votes lost. Votes never counted. Electronic voting machines, vulnerable to all types of mischief, proliferating without the protective shadow of a paper trail. People in poor neighborhoods shunning the voting booth because they’ve been led to believe they’ll be arrested for some minor violation, such as an unpaid traffic ticket, if they dare to show up at the polls.
Enough. We need to recognize reality. The aging system of American-style democracy is beset in too many places by dry rot, cynicism, chicanery and fraud. It’s due for an overhaul.
The gerrymandering geniuses have raised their antidemocratic notion of perpetual incumbency to a fine art. As Adam Nagourney and Robin Toner informed us in yesterday’s Times, it’s very difficult to transform even intense voter dissatisfaction into real political change. “For all the deep unhappiness that polls show with Congress, Mr. Bush, his party and the Iraq war,” they wrote, “only about 10 percent of House races could be considered even remotely competitive.”
I’ve already said that I favor the creation of some sort of nonpartisan national forum — perhaps a series of high-profile, televised town hall meetings — to explore ways of improving our deeply troubled system of politics and government. If we could get beyond the hellacious din of obnoxious television ads and mindless shouting heads, we’d find that there are a lot of people with good ideas out there who need to be heard from.
One of the biggest problems at the moment is the extent to which ordinary Americans feel estranged from the ruling elite, from those powerful (and invariably wealthy) men and women in both parties who actually influence the course of politics and government.
The key task of any national effort to revitalize American-style democracy would be to bring the citizenry into closer touch with elected leaders in ways that hold the leaders to greater account and make them more responsive. The absolutely essential first step would be to ensure that all who are eligible to vote are actually allowed to vote, and that their ballots are properly counted.
I don’t think the politicians, even with all the recent coverage, realize the level of dissatisfaction and outright anger that has gripped much of the population. Iraq may be the flash point, but the dissatisfaction runs much deeper than that. People feel that the U.S. has sailed off in the wrong direction, and that — as voters — they haven’t the clout to set things right.