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Nov 14 2012

The incredibly corrupt, incompetent, and inefficient US election system

How can it be that the US, with its long history of elections, its wealth, and technological prowess runs elections that many developing countries would be ashamed of and would result in their election officials being summarily fired? It is unconscionable that in a rich and advanced country like the US, the voting process is so incredibly clumsy and inefficient.

Incredibly, over 300,000 of the votes cast in the state of Arizona votes have yet to counted, a week after the election. Florida’s electoral votes were not certified for president Obama (given him a 332-206 winning margin in the electoral college) until six days after the election. Seven House of Representatives seats are yet to be determined, eight days after the election.

And the corruption is appalling. In every US election there are widespread allegations of attempts to influence the outcome by dishonest means such as tampering with the voting machines, intimidating voters, placing onerous burdens on them such as identification, purging them from voter rolls, misleading voters as to when and where they can vote, and so on. And many of these things are done by the very election officials who are supposedly entrusted with running fair elections.

And then there are the long lines to vote, with people sometimes waiting for hours. It is truly absurd that a rich country like the US cannot provide enough polling places, voting machines, and election staff to enable people to vote quickly and easily. I suspect that this is just another attempt to discourage people from voting.

And this is on top of the distortions introduced by gerrymandering. For example, in the election just completed, the Democratic party won a bare majority of votes cast in elections for the House of Representatives 48.8-48.5% but Republicans retained their comfortable, though reduced, majority. This supports what Sam Wang pointed out, that due to gerrymandering after the 2010 census, Democrats need to win the popular vote by 2.5% in order to break even in the number of House seats.

Ohio is one of the most extreme examples of gerrymandering and it is getting steadily worse. In the 1980s, the seat distribution matched the vote distribution. But last week, the popular vote was 51-49% in favor of Republicans but they won 75% of the Congressional seats (12 out of 16). This was done by drawing districts so that the Democratic constituency was concentrated in just four districts where they won by margins of 100% (uncontested), 73%, 73%, and 68%, while they got less (often much less) than 45% in 10 districts. Only two seats could be considered competitive.

Almost all these problems can be traced to one source, and that is that elected officials with a strong vested interest in the outcome, usually the secretary of state in the individual states, are given the task of conducting the elections. This allows people like Ohio’s Jon Husted this year and Katherine Harris in Florida in 2000 to try to rig the process in favor of their party.

Most democracies usually hand over the running of the process to an agency that has professionals and career people working in it and have a considerable degree of independence from political influence. While the head of the agency is often appointed by an elected official, once in office he or she has considerable autonomy and can only be removed for serious offenses by an onerous process like impeachment that provides them with considerable independence and freedom from political meddling, somewhat like federal judges. The current system in the US should be replaced so that each state in the US has one such statewide official to oversee the election process and ensure uniformity and fairness across the entire state.

The reason that the current system is not seen to be the scandal it is is because few presidential elections are that close. The election of 2000, in which Florida’s secretary of state Katherine Harris’s meddling in the process was brought to light, was an anomaly. In most cases, the final outcome is so clear that the shenanigans in any one state are quickly forgotten after the election because it does not affect the outcome. In this year’s election, Ohio’s Husted tried all manner of things to influence the outcome that should be investigated (and for which he was blasted by federal judges) but it will not happen because Barack Obama won by a margin that makes the state’s 18 electoral votes not critical. Similarly most people did not pay much attention to the fact that Florida’s 29 electoral votes were not awarded for so long because it did not matter this year.

But, like in 2000, one day it will matter and the resulting mess will be huge.

The other problem is that we have now reached a stage where the presidential election is being decided by less than ten states that have less than a quarter of the electorate. The rest of the country was pretty much ignored, which does not seem fair to the voters in those areas. It is possible that in the future, the list of battleground states will get even smaller with just about 15% of the total voters in them.

One solution is to abolish the electoral college altogether and have a direct popular vote for president, which makes sense since the president is supposed to represent the entire nation. But that does have its downside. One can imagine the nightmare if a very close election takes place and there are allegations of fraud. One would have to have a nationwide recount. This is one reason that the electoral college system has some advantages in electing a president than by a nationwide vote, because any problems can usually be contained to one or a few states.

One Democratic congressional leader has suggested a hybrid system, in which the electoral college is retained but a bonus of 29 electoral votes is given to whoever gets the majority of the nationwide vote. This would improve things somewhat by encouraging candidates to campaign at least in the more populous states, whether they are likely to win there or not. The smaller non-swing states will likely continue to be ignored.

But the serious structural issue is the length of the campaigns and the vast amounts of money that are now pouring in. It was bad enough before but with the Citizens United decision, it has got immensely worse. These two problems are, of course, related. The more time you have to campaign, the more money that can and will be spent. The basic problem will not go away as long as election day is known well in advance, allowing people to plot long-term strategies and raise huge sums of money.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    kevinalexander

    Lotto Democracy.

    Each day, generate a random nine digit number, find the corresponding Social Security number and inform that person that they have been elected to Congress.

    You end up with a perfect representation of the people. You save the billions spent on elections. The government can govern full time instead of campaigning while they leave lawmaking to the lobbyists.

    And they can’t possibly be dumber than the idiots that end up there now.

  2. 2
    ph041985

    Like I wrote in a comment on your post yesterday on early voting, I think one of the solutions should be to push hard to make the system more open, with the ideal of a 100% voter turnout.

    Part of the reason candidates have been campaigning so hard in recent elections is not so they can reach 100% of the voters, but to reach something like 10-15% of people who don’t currently vote, to go out and vote for them, and that small percentage is enough to turn defeat into victory. 75-80% of people voting already know well beforehand who they’re voting for, and it takes a whole lot of campaigning, or some serious scandals, to get them to change their mind.

    If more people voted on a regular basis, then the small percentage of voters who the campaigns target would have less of an impact, so there would be far less incentive to try and reach them.

    I think this would lead to less campaigning in the time running up to elections, and more time by politicians trying to establish long-term support through their actual governing.

    In turn, having more people voting implies that they are more engaged in the process, and for a lot of people that is enough to get them interested and informed on the issues they care about. Politicians would have a harder time making their voters forget something they did before the election season, because the voters are more involved in the process overall.

    I still think you are right about the flaws in how the elected officials themselves control the system, and the electoral college. There are just so many problems all around.

    However, I think if more people voted overall, as they do in many other countries, there would be a less frenzied election season, and we would have candidates whose popularity are more reflective of their legislative and governing records. Campaigns would have to focus on a larger amount of people, meaning money and other campaign resources would have to go a lot farther and reach a wider audience.

    Of course, this isn’t without its flaws as well. Campaigns would focus less on people who don’t vote at all, to swaying the vote of an opponent’s supporter. With the history of this country, this could mean even dirtier campaigns. But again, if people are voting more, they are also more likely to get informed about who they’re voting for, and the likelihood of these tactics working becomes far less when a voter is more informed. Also, newcomers would probably have a harder time beating incumbents, but if the incumbents are better at representing their constituents, perhaps that’s not such a problem. In time, voters would likely vote out incumbents who they strongly disfavor.

    But regardless, I think if we got a 90-100% voter turnout, many of these problems would start to solve themselves.

  3. 3
    Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc

    Looking at Wikipedia:

    In some states, bipartisan gerrymandering is the norm. State legislators from both parties sometimes agree to draw congressional district boundaries in a way that ensures the re-election of most or all incumbent representatives from both parties.

    International election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, who were invited to observe and report on the 2004 national elections, expressed criticism of the U.S. congressional redistricting process and made a recommendation that the procedures be reviewed to ensure genuine competitiveness of Congressional election contests

    It also seems that gerrymandering is unconstitutional if used to discriminate against minorities, but not for political reasons. Hahaha, oh dear. I’m pretty sure that these antics are illegal in the UK… Not that we’re perfect by any stretch, but this does seem to fail democracy 101.

  4. 4
    Gregory in Seattle

    I feel the need to defend the Electoral College.

    The EC was created because the Founders were afraid of mob rule. When the Constitution was ratified, every state has restrictions (usually based on property ownership) on who could vote, and many states has stricter requirements for holding office. The original idea was that the Legislature would appoint electors from among their own number (ie the landed gentry) who would discuss candidates among themselves and cast their votes according to individual conscience. Right now, every state holds a plebicite to select a slate of electors, and almost every state requires the electors to vote their mandate; there is, however, no constitutional requirement for a plebicite or a mandated vote.

    In modern politics, the Electoral College protects different regions from being completely irrelevant. To carry California and get its 55 Electoral Votes, a candidate must be able to appeal to voters in San Francisco and Stockton, Los Angeles and Fresno. Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio… the EC means that candidates must be able to work with disparate philosophies and visions to secure these states: it is not enough to appeal to just Huston and Miami and New York City and Philadelphia.

    Likewise, it prevents entire states from being irrelevant and lets less populous states like Delaware and Vermont have a relevant voice in the national selection. The District of Columbia, which has 3 votes thanks to the 23rd Amendment, has a higher population than Wyoming; in a direct popular election, DC will matter while voters in Wyoming wouldn’t matter.

    Right now, a direct popular vote would benefit progressives. But political fashions change: 30 years ago, a direct popular vote would have firmly favored conservatives. Where will we be 30 years from now? The Electoral College requires that whoever is elected as President is able to draw votes across a large cross-section of the country, and helps to prevent an extremist — of either wing — from taking office.

  5. 5
    JagerBaBomb

    No, they most definitely could be. I’m thinking of someone very much like the mother of Honey Boo Boo. Our country would likely collapse in a few short years.

  6. 6
    OlliP

    Give up the winner-takes-all system. You can then keep the electoral college and limit recount issues etc that way. It would then be worth it to campaign in California, New York, Texas, … since you could win a part of the electoral college votes. And the minority votes in any state would also matter.

    In other than presidential elections you can also give up the winner-takes-all system by having larger areas represented by several representative in stead of 1 per area. That way you can have the seats split according to popularity. For example 3 republicans, 2 democrats and 1 other from a larger area and not just the 6 winners of smaller areas, 6 republicans in this example (if we assume every smaller region has the same party popularity distribution as the large area as a whole, eg 55-30-15).

  7. 7
    Marcus Ranum

    Incredibly, over 300,000 of the votes cast in the state of Arizona votes have yet to counted, a week after the election.

    Once you run out of fingers and toes, it gets hard.

  8. 8
    mnb0

    “This was done by drawing districts so ”
    Congratulations all you Americans. Banana republics like Guyana and Suriname have abandoned this practice at least 15 years ago.

  9. 9
    eric

    This is one reason that the electoral college system has some advantages in electing a president than by a nationwide vote, because any problems can usually be contained to one or a few states.

    Also relevant to natural disasters like Sandy or Katrina. In a popular election, a disaster that prevents people from a region or area from voting could easily influence the outcome; it is pretty easy to imagine a hurricane or earthquake inordinantly affecting urban or rural voters, or voters in a conservative area of the country more than a liberal one (or vice versa). But an EC system is not affected by a disaster unless voters for one side are inordinately affected within a state. That is much harder to do.

    Take Sandy and New Jersey for example. NJ is a liberal state. It is easy to see how Sandy might have reduced the Dem margin of a popular vote victory by reducing turnout in New Jersey. But for Sandy to change the way the NJ EC votes went, it would’ve had to affect Democratic voters within NJ more than GOP voters within NJ. If it affects them in the same ratio, there is zero impact on the EC result.

    If you prefer your examples more mathematical and less qualitative, consider an imaginary state with 10,000,000 expected voters, 90% of which are Green party and 10% of which are Yellow. A late October hurricane wipes out much of the state’s infrastructure, resulting in only 5,000,000 votes being cast. Had this been a national popular election, Green would have lost a net 4,000,000 votes (4.5 mil – the 0.5 mil Red would’ve lost). But in an EC system, the presidential election result is exactly the same as if there had been no hurricane; the 90/10 ratio within the state is not affected and the state’s electors go to Green just as the would’ve done had all 10,000,000 voters voted.

  10. 10
    Nathan & the Cynic

    Or at the very least switch so that every state follows the lead of Nebraska and Maine and awards electoral votes on a per district basis, with the statewide winner picking up the two ‘senatorial’ votes.

    Of course, nowadays that might cause the Dems a lot of pain (goodbye California advantage), so it’s not likely to happen. A number of states have passed laws saying that it will go into effect for that state as soon as states with 50% + 1 of the electoral votes pass it.

  11. 11
    billyeager

    Government should be populated by intellectuals who don’t actually want the job. We should elect qualified experts from relevant industry sectors, the more introverted the better, and put an end to the show business and freak-show circus that is modern politics.

    Make government boring!

    Make it job that clever nerds and geeks do, not clueless narcissistic power-mongers who crave attention and encourage lowest-common-denominator knee-jerk reaction to every major issue.

  12. 12
    Bill Barclay`

    Why does the US insist on being the least democratic country among so-called democracies? Let’s use the actual vote count – i.e. one person, one vote – to determine the outcome of national elections. All other actual democracies do so.

    And then, of course, there is the simple question of arithmetic competence: obviously AZ fails on this.

    Of course, if you’ve ever spent any time working with/observing election “judges,” you can understand why: (i)most of them are so taken with their petty power that they slow down the voting process to prove they are useful; (ii) most of them are barely numerate; and(iii) way too many of them have a partisan bias when it comes to making any decisions about what a contested ballot actually says.

    It used to be that the US was a leader in democracy and access to voting. Now we are a laggard, largely (altho not completely) as a result of GOP efforts to exclude voters (as Dems did in the time and place where I grew up: the South of the 1950s).

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