Monday, November 3, 2014

Ballot Battles

However this week’s election in the U.S. turns out, we are likely to hear commentators discussing how the electorate for midterm elections is different from the electorate in presidential election years.

The general differences between the two are well known. Fewer people turn out for the midterms. And those that do turn out tend to be from the older, whiter and more conservative segments of the larger electorate.

Does it matter that the same exact people do not turn out for every election? It certainly matters to the political parties. More Democratic voters turn out in presidential years, giving Republican candidates more of a chance in other years.

But does it matter in terms of the legitimacy of successful candidates? Does a successful candidate in a low-turnout election have less legitimacy or less of a mandate than one who is elected when there is a higher turnout? Constitutionally, it doesn’t matter. If you are elected, you are elected—regardless of how many voters did or did not participate in the balloting.

Does it matter politically? That is less clear. Obviously, a larger margin for or against a party carries more impact than a smaller one. And a higher turnout carries a bit more weight in the politicians’ minds than a meagre one. But in the end, politicians on both sides will—at least as far as their rhetoric goes—see in the will of the voters what they want to see. The president’s spokespeople will emphasize the mandate he received at the ballot box two years, regardless of how badly it goes for his party this time around. Republicans, on the other hand, can be expected to see every win as a vindication of their views and a repudiation of Democratic policies.

Four years ago President Obama acknowledged that his party had taken a shellacking and then proceeded to go on essentially as if nothing at all had happened. Since then he has consistently criticized dysfunction and gridlock in the “Republican Congress,” thereby ignoring the scores of bills passed by the House of Representatives and which were blocked from being taken up in the Senate by Majority Leader Harry Reid. If there has been gridlock in government, it has been pretty much entirely in the Democratic-controlled upper house of Congress.

The fact is that even in presidential election years there is more than one electorate. For example, two years ago there was the one that re-elected the president fairly handily while at the same time ostensibly the same electorate maintained a substantial majority for the Republicans in the House of Representatives. How does that happen? It all comes down to how you count the votes. The geographical distribution of individual district elections favors rural areas. Nationwide elections favor urban centers. And, in the case of 2012, a brilliant technical strategy by the Obama campaign was able to target the exact areas—in some cases the exact houses—to reach the necessary number of votes in the Electoral College.

So with all these different electorates in every election, how on earth are we supposed to discern what politicians like to call “the will of the American people”? As long as the country is so evenly divided, it is not going to be easy. In a closely divided country, the way the votes get counted and who happens to turn out to vote become crucial. That’s why the voting process itself has become so politicized. Voter fraud becomes a huge issue because even a relatively small number of fraudulent votes—or, conversely, suppressed votes—can make all the difference.

That is why something like voting by mail can have a crucial impact. At one time party machines had to actually have armies of people to drive voters to the polls on Election Day. Now, in some states, those volunteers have several weeks to show up on the doorstop with an already-filled-out mail-in ballot that only needs to be signed so the volunteer can then post it or deposit it.

Make no mistake, I am in debt to the mail-in ballot process. As an expat, I have necessarily been voting by mail for more than a decade now. But I have to wonder. Many people who would not have voted in past elections are now voting because volunteers take the initiative to get them to vote. In that case, who is really voting? The person who signs the ballot or the volunteer?

There was something quaint yet reassuring about the traditional way of voting. On the same day everywhere across the country everyone went individually into the voting booth and—alone with his or her own heart or conscience—cast their own vote. Now, as more people vote at home, I have to wonder how much sanctity there is in voting.

Are we becoming a country, like too many others, where the political spoils belong simply to the machine that can exert the most pressure and promise the most favors to deliver enough votes to push its candidate over the finish line?

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