In this election season in the United States, all attention is on the breakdown in what was supposed to be the world's greatest financial system. Something similar can be said about the democratic system in which this election is taking place. As dramatized in Florida in 2000, this self-proclaimed greatest democracy in the world has little clue about how to organize elections. Eight years later, Americans still face an uphill battle to win full respect for their right to vote.
Although written in the context of the 2008 election campaign, this article is based on observations I made four years ago while spending the academic year at the University of Washington in Seattle. I will try to show that the Florida fiasco of 2000 was not an aberration but a normal occurrence in a system lacking a nonpartisan body to enforce consistent and clear electoral rules. The deepest manifestation of the problem is a System of boundary drawing ensuring, in effect, that all electoral districts are gerrymandered. But it finds its way into all aspects of the process--including the very counting of votes. Despite the hope generated by the candidacy and (at the time of writing) likely election of Mr. Obama, it is very unlikely that the American system will be changed.
In two provocative books, (1) journalist Daniel Lazare argues persuasively that America's antiquated institutions have evolved into obstacles to democracy: the United States has entered the 21st century with an 18th-century set of institutions. People around the world could see this when the result in 2000 was rendered suspect by the debacle in Florida, but subsequent elections also exemplify the American "malaise." When the U.S. Supreme Court stated in June 2004 that "the constitution does not protect the right of all citizens to vote, but rather the right of all qualified citizens to vote," (2) it bore out Lazare's claim that built into this political system is an 18th-century elitist and regionally fragmented way of running elections. In what follows, I describe the events surrounding the 2004 gubernatorial race in the state of Washington, which manifested the profound contradictions of the American system, a cavalier treatment of what should be the fundamental civil right to vote, and carelessness with the fundamentals of democracy.
Washington state: Partisan at every step
On election day, November 2, 2004, three-term Washington state Attorney General Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, found herself in a tight race with former state senator Dino Rossi, the Republican candidate (both candidates are running again in 2008). On the night of the election, with Gregoire ahead by just a few hundred votes and hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots left to count, the race was far too close to call. Two weeks later, on November 17, with all counties finally reporting, Rossi won the election by 261 votes. With such a small difference, state law triggered a mandatory machine recount. When this recount was completed on November 24, Rossi won again but his lead was reduced to 42 votes. Rossi's campaign declared victory. Gregoire declined to concede and Democrats hinted at requesting another recount. "Some...