America's Disgraceful Voting System
My CNN column deals with a national embarrassment: our shoddy election system and the dangers of allowing partisan officials to interfere with the electoral process.
When the polls close in most other democracies, the results are known almost instantly. Ballots are usually counted accurately and rapidly, and nobody disputes the result. Complaints of voter fraud are rare; complaints of voter suppression are rarer still.
The kind of battle we are seeing in Florida -- where Democrats and Republicans will go to court over whether early voting should span 14 days or eight -- simply does not happen in Germany, Canada, Britain or France. The ballot uncertainty that convulsed the nation after Florida's vote in 2000 could not happen in Mexico or Brazil.
Almost everywhere else, elections are run by impartial voting agencies. In France, elections are the responsibility of the Ministry of the Interior, which establishes places and hours of voting, prints ballots (France still uses paper) and counts the votes. In Germany, an independent federal returning officer oversees a complex state and federal voting system. In Canada, federal elections are managed by a specialized agency, Elections Canada. Mexico, emerging from a sad history of electoral manipulation, created in the 1990s a respected independent agency, the Federal Electoral Institute. Brazil has nationwide electronic voting, producing instantaneous, uncontested results.
No voting system is perfect. Britain has faced allegations of chronic fraud in absentee balloting. As I write, Lithuanian politics are convulsed by allegations of vote buying by one of its political parties.
But here's what doesn't happen in other democracies:
Politicians of one party do not set voting schedules to favor their side and harm the other. Politicians do not move around voting places to gain advantages for themselves or to disadvantage their opponents. In fact, in almost no other country do politicians have any say in the administration of elections at all.
Here's a story from the 2000 election.
Like many old cities, St. Louis has not invested in modern voting equipment. Voting delays are notorious. At the scheduled poll-closing time, voters were still lined up throughout the city. Al Gore's campaign, desperate to win the state, asked a judge to extend voting for three more hours in the heavily Democratic city -- but only in the city. A state judge agreed. Republicans appealed, the state judge was overruled, and the polls were closed after remaining open a total of 45 additional minutes beyond the legal closing time.
Republicans won Missouri's 11 electoral votes by a margin of 78,786 out of the almost 2.4 million cast.
Think about what's incredible here:
Lines were lengthy in St. Louis City because in the United States, almost uniquely, local governments choose how voting is cast and counted. People who live in localities with less capable governments, such as St. Louis, will face greater delay and difficulty in casting their vote.
When local Democratic officials saw themselves disadvantaged by the existing rules, they appealed to a judge for special treatment for its (likely) voters -- and only for those voters. (Good news: In Missouri, circuit judges are appointed by the governor and then confirmed in office by nonpartisan vote. In many states, however, judges are themselves elected in partisan elections.)
The other party demanded that the existing rules be upheld, and the case was litigated on the fly, ending in a weird compromise that only failed to become a national scandal because the events in Florida were so much more dramatic.