Another one of those limp-dick, hoity-toity, bipartisan blue-ribbon panels has come through with another one of those sets of recommendations. This time it’s on election reform, if one uses the word “reform” very loosely.
These kinds of reports serve one purpose, if nothing else: They tell us what the clubbable people—the moneyed, prestige types—have on their minds. They are a means by which the rulers communicate with the ruled.
This panel is co-chaired by a former President, Jimmy Carter, and a former Secretary of State, James A. Baker, a guy who has made a career out of gaming the system and making out like a bandit. In short, Jimmy and Jim are hardly a pair of malcontents, so their report is a work of misdirection in which the blue-ribbon boys beg that we, the blue-ribbonless masses, expend energy and enthusiasm arguing about changes in the rules that will not make a crumb’s worth of difference one way or the other.
The item causing the most consternation is a recommendation that, in order to vote, a person must flash a photo-ID card. Critics correctly point out that this qualification will be most inconvenient for poor people, who may not have drivers’ licenses, and the aged and infirm, who can obtain such ID only at some pain and expense. That said, a political system teeming with volunteer organizations could get those people registered, but our politics is hardly teeming with volunteers: Ours is a passive system in which the millions sit on their bottoms and get hit with thousands of political television commercials. Jimmy and Jim didn’t discuss what may be the biggest thing wrong with our politics: the absence of people taking part in it.
The commission asks for mobile voter-registration vans and voting by mail, things desired by the Democrats, who believe (on rather shaky evidence) that big turnouts favor their fortunes. Whether they do or not, for the most part those who want to vote can do so without too much trouble. If many millions do not vote, it is because for whatever reasons the whole business doesn’t interest them. Low turnout is ascribed to “voter apathy” (whatever that means) or cynicism or disillusionment or lack of sleep or anything you care to make up. We know that high turnouts occur with elections that are so exciting and important for people that they decide, by golly, that they’re going to march down there and vote. Or else they get swooped up by energetic local political organizations peopled by enthusiastic party workers. Jimmy and Jim can’t do anything about the former and are not disposed to tackle what might be done about the latter.
The commission wants electronic voting machines that produce a paper record for recounts in disputed elections. Who can quarrel with that? At the same time, anyone who thinks that having such machines will make a significant difference in the outcome of most of our elections is mistaken.
Paper or no paper, there will always be ways of stealing votes, and we have knaves enough who are clever enough to invent them. Nevertheless, it is only very close elections that can be stolen, and for those who lose close elections that way, it is tough—but it does happen from time to time. The knaves can’t steal against a landslide, so the real protection is winning big.
For decades, when the Republicans were losing election after election, they never stopped screaming about voter fraud. Of late, their indignation and urgency on the topic has lessened, and it’s the Democrats who are in a furibund state over people stealing elections. All shouting aside, the only conclusion you can come to about dishonesty at the ballot box is that it’s a loser’s issue. Yes, do the best you can to make sure that you’re not counted out—get lots of lawyers and good-government types running around observing, as they say, and kick up a fuss when something smells bad. But none of that is a substitute for getting more votes, lots more votes, than the other side. That is still the best protection.
Jimmy and Jim are pushing another oft-suggested change in the Presidential-primary setup. Leaving the Iowa caucuses and the early New Hampshire primary as is, they want the other states to go into regional primaries to be held a month apart. They argue that doing so will give voters more of a chance to look over the field than they have now, when, by the time you blink, the two nominees have been chosen by the end of March for an election to be held seven months later.
This change would bring forth a neater-looking election process than the higgledy-piggledy one we have at the moment. Its disadvantages usually go undiscussed. They’re the same as they have been since the direct primary was first introduced about a hundred years ago. Primaries are a big-money game, and super-primaries—that is, regional primaries—will be a super-big-money game. The only people who can compete in elections on that scale are those who enjoy gigantic financial backing (and we know where and how you get that), for they are the only ones who can afford to blitz the public with television commercials. It’s too bad that Jimmy Carter, a man who made it to the White House without big money behind him, would embrace the institution of a system that will make it next to impossible for another Jimmy Carter to do what he did.
The commission focused on some of the least-telling defects in the American system of conducting elections. Instead of fiddle-faddle about voter ID, the blue-ribbon boys might have paid attention to the question of ballot access. Ballot access is less spoken of than voter ID, but it’s every bit as crucial: If you can’t get on the ballot, then your supporters aren’t going to be able to vote for you. In Iran, they have a bunch of religious elders who can and do strike anybody off the ballot who doesn’t pray facing in the right direction. In the United States, the moneybags pay lawyers to knock objectionable persons off the ballot. Anyone other than the official candidates from the two parties qualifies as objectionable and has to resign himself (or herself) to not appearing on the ballot, or else to devoting much of the little money that a third-party candidate has to gruesome court battles to force his way onto the ballot.
Incidentally, no state is more notorious for using the Iranian ballot-access system than New York. The advantage of the New York system, it should be pointed out, is that it obviates any need to steal votes: It doesn’t take any monkey business at the ballot box to do in the maverick candidate, whose name simply doesn’t make it onto the ballot.
Besides keeping the opposition off the ballot, there are other ways of ensuring that an election is meaningless. The often-used rotten borough is one. Under the rotten-borough system, a congressional or state legislative district’s boundaries are drawn in a way that guarantees one of the two parties will hold the seat in perpetuity. Again, New York leads the way here: There are people on Social Security who cannot remember when the State Senate was not Republican and the State Assembly not Democratic.
The argument for keeping the same people and the same party in the same office for 10, 20, 30 or 40 years is that they know their way around and cannot be hornswoggled by wicked lobbyists and unscrupulous pressure groups. With extended tenure comes great wisdom, as Fidel Castro’s extended sojourn in office demonstrates. If they can ever get him out office in Cuba and he has another 50 years in him, by all means let us corral him for the New York State Legislature. Is there a better place in which to petrify with grace and dignity?
In sum, Jimmy and Jim and the rest of the blue-ribbon boys, whether it was their intent or not, have tried to apply lipstick to the corpse, but their own palsied hands have slipped and they’ve made a mess of the job.
Nicholas von Hoffman is author of A Devil’s Dictionary of Business, just published by Nation Books.