by Mike Street
As Election Day comes and goes-and now Election Week, too-the country hangs in limbo, caught between two mediocre candidates, wondering whether we'll spend the next four years in a state of left- or right-wing boredom and political gridlock. Before Election Day, I swore I'd never condone the use of the phrase 'battleground state' again in political discourse, and now I've expanded that linguistic sanction to include 'butterfly ballot,' 'recount,' and 'too close to call.' The campaign that lasted forever, yet told us nothing worthwhile about the candidates, has become the election that lasted forever. But what has it told us about our democracy?
The largest lesson has been the sudden awareness of the weight and value of one vote. In at least two states-Oregon and Florida-the race remains undecided, and in many others, the margin was incredibly narrow. Even Al Gore's much-touted victory in the popular vote is only the matter of a few thousand votes. In an era where our democracy has been wilting, where we jump for joy and pat each other on the back when more than half of our registered voters bother to cast a ballot, we are experiencing a brilliant lesson in civics, an object lesson in why each person's vote is so precious, and why nobody anywhere should vote using a ballot they don't understand, nor should they stand for it if a replacement ballot is denied to them.
We are a country-if not a world-of people afraid to raise a stink, scared to cause a ruckus and look different (or stupid), and I'm sure the individual voters in Palm Beach county became more vocal only as they understood that others had made the same mistake as they did. Few Americans like to rock the boat, and most of us will eat our tuna fish sandwiches on wheat, even if we ordered rye, rather than send it back to the kitchen and cause problems. And I'm sure that many voters in that now-infamous county left their polling places, having been denied a chance to revote (if indeed they did ask for a replacement ballot, which it appears that some of them did), thinking that they might have screwed up, but that their vote didn't mean that much anyway. And now, like the baseball manager who waits until after a game to lodge a protest with the umpire, their complaints carry less weight.
Let me be clear that I am not faulting these voters for complaining too late-some of them did apparently did complain on Election Day that they were afraid they'd mismarked their ballots, and they said they were denied a replacement ballot. If this is true, it is the worst kind of voter fraud, the kind that masks itself as bureaucratic indifference, the placid face behind the government desk that tells us, sorry, the form's filled out wrong and we'll have to come back next week. It is infuriating to encounter this kind of petty-mindedness at a government agency, where it usually means a further hassle and a delay in processing whatever application we failed to fill out correctly. But in the context of an election, this kind of response is criminal-voters anywhere should be given the chance to cast a correct ballot, no matter how many times he or she takes to cast that ballot. One person, one vote does not refer to the number of ballots we are issued.
But even if these stories of being denied an opportunity to revote aren't true, or if the number of people who were denied another ballot is too small to make a difference, I don't see the harm in a revote. It may be unprecedented in American presidential history, but what about this surreal election process has had precedent? We are dealing with a unique situation in our history, a situation which has no precedent that I've heard of-an unprecedented election, as well as an as-yet un-Presidented election-but we are so afraid to strike out on our own, to do something different. If we allow a revote, and only to those voters who actually voted on November 7, what has been harmed?
Over and over, I've heard the commentators point out the obvious, that these voters know the results in the rest of the country, and that they therefore understand the gravity of their vote. In a way, the presidential election has narrowed to this one county, and that weight is somehow supposed to affect the minds of the voters. But would it do so? Let's break it down:
Clearly, Bush voters are going to vote for Bush and Gore voters are going to vote for Gore, assuming that they mark their new ballots correctly. What voter in his or her right mind would support a different candidate in this hypothetical revote? Clearly, none. So the majority of the vote will probably be unaffected. Instead, fringe voters might be drawn into the two-party fray; they might change their vote from Nader, Buchanan, or any of the other minor-party candidates to a Bush or Gore vote. The Bush campaign has acknowledged that a revote would have the effect of electing Gore, on the basis of this kind of fringe-candidate reconsideration. The Gore campaign, so far as I know, has said nothing on this case, for much the same reason.
This is the sticky wicket, the situation that troubles most commentators considering the potential for a revote. In some ways, it's not much different than West Coast voters, who often know the winners and losers in a presidential campaign, and change their votes as a result (if they don't abandon voting entirely). But this has not stopped the media from predicting the results of elections. Far from it, in this election, last-minute voters in the Florida panhandle could have known the first Florida prediction-that of a Gore victory-before they cast their votes, because they're in a different time zone than the rest of the state. (I've lived near to the Florida panhandle, a.k.a. the Redneck Riviera, and I imagine that their time zone is actually about ten years behind the rest of the state, but that's a different story entirely).
Voters continue to allow their votes to be affected by information that appears closer to the election. Here in Oregon, where some voters waited until the last possible minute before marking their ballots, Nader voters were clearly waiting for nationwide results before making their decision. On the other side of the information gap are voters like me; I sent in my ballot days after it arrived, two weeks before the election, with no knowledge of any national outcomes or last-minute revelations like Bush's drunk-driving conviction. I'm sure others did the same, and absentee voters nationwide may have sent their ballots in earlier, too. Overseas voters aren't even privy to the same kind of inundative coverage we get here in the States, and surely have less (and differently biased) information than the rest of us. Does that make Oregon last-minute votes worth more or less than mail-in or absentee ballots? Clearly, it doesn't.
Beyond such minute psychological considerations, there is a larger aspect to this fear of a revote. It seems to me that everyone's worried that these Florida voters will vote knowing that their votes will make a significant difference in the outcome of the election. Wait a minute-isn't that what we're all supposed to do? Shouldn't we always cast our ballots in the hope that our candidate will win, and with the confidence that our ballot may be the one in a billion that pushes him or her over the top? Why is this such a fearsome prospect? In this era of electoral indifference, why are we denying this one county the opportunity to case votes that actually matter? Maybe we should do this every election: choose a pivotal county at random, and allow them to vote a week later, with a clear view of the difference their ballot will make. It's like a lottery for a chance to see democracy at work, to cast a ballot with full knowledge of its weight and import, rather than blithely tossing a piece of paper at an election official, lacking any kind of confidence that your vote will make a difference.
We are denying these Palm Beach county voters, in a sense, the ultimate democratic dream, to cast the deciding ballots in an election, knowing full well that they are making a huge decision. Far from being a nightmare, we should allow them this privilege, and then remember it next time we cast our own ballots. For, of course, the election has only come down to Florida and to Palm Beach county by an accident of chance. Who knows how many voters in other states could have swung the election towards one candidate or another by voting differently, or by voting at all? If these few Florida voters hold the election in their hands, it is only because of a coincidence of electoral college mathematics, poor ballot design, and the result of the six million ballots cast across the country. Their ballots are not worth more or less than the rest of ours; they only appear to be, they simply seem to be as important as they really are. And what, in the name of America and democracy, is wrong with that?