Our Election Debacle
A Polemic Concerning Electoral Bureaucracy
By James Neimeister
Three months ago I could have never predicted what a frustrating and time-consuming saga trying to vote would become. It was late August and I printed out the appropriate forms, one to register to vote and another to request an absentee ballot. I intended to vote in my home district so that my vote would have an impact on the community I have always lived in, Cleveland. I double checked that my registration had indeed gone through, and it seemed that all I had to do was wait for my ballot to arrive in the mail.
Weeks later, that ballot still had not come. I called the board of elections for the first of what would be many times and was informed that my ballot had been sent back as “undeliverable” for unknown reasons. I was informed by the woman on the phone that she would personally send it to me immediately.
Apparently there had been some kind of miscommunication, however, because what I ended up receiving in the mail was not my ballot, but rather another application for a ballot. I filled out the form carefully and sent it back, making sure to ask that I could have it sent to my P.O. box and that all the information was in order. Again, I received no reply for almost two weeks, so I called the board of elections to find out what had happened. And again, I was told that they never received any application; my registration was in order but either I would have to wait even longer or go vote in person.
So I waited. A week later I received a letter in the mail explaining that my application could not be processed: “This agency has tried to contact you through the United States Postal Service…the United States Postal Service has since returned the mail as being undeliverable.” I’d had enough. It seemed that the only way I would be able to vote was to drive halfway across the state and vote in person.
The Friday before election day, I drove all the way to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland only to have it explained to me by two kind, frazzled election officials that I could only vote provisionally. I had not returned an official change of address form they had sent me earlier, despite the fact that I had not changed addresses, and this had been the source of all my problems.
Still, I wonder why they would have tried to send me a ballot in the first place, and whether that has anything to do with the post office’s failure to deliver the ballot itself, despite its demonstrated ability to send an explanatory letter.
Regardless of whether those mistakes ultimately mattered, I faced yet another obstacle the day I voted. Just before filling in the bubbles of my ballot, I noticed that the official I had been speaking to mixed up the numbers of my address while entering my information into the computer. Knowing that in the obsessive, absurdly particular world of bureaucracy such errors can be fatal, I pointed out the error. We needed to start over, print another form, and then look for and readjust every instance where that one small mistake had been replicated throughout the process. The official tried in vain to reassure me in vain that this would be done immediately and that I should just go on ahead. Though I finally got to fill out my ballot and stuff it into the box, I felt no gratification — no sense that I had accomplished anything resembling the fulfillment of some sacred duty of democratic participation one imagines when going to vote.
This critique is an indication that even at its most basic and fundamental levels, our electoral system has become a complete and utter debacle. Not only are elections in this country referred to as a “horse race” on a regular basis, but even an operation as rudimentary as casting one’s ballot has the potential to become an absolute nightmare. During the early voting period in Florida, the lines at one of Miami’s early voting stations were so long that officials made a decision simply to shut down and stop counting votes. Meanwhile, Governor Rick Scott refused to extend early voting hours, arguing that it would be too costly. It is beyond comprehension how any governor, whether Democrat or Republican, could balk at spending money on what should naturally come as one the government’s primary duties.
These efforts, along with other measures like the push for stricter voter identification laws, have vastly complicated the electoral process and have made voting harder. Stories abound this cycle about irregularities at the polls and the difficulties people have had while voting. One such example occurred when the reverend and talking head Al Sharpton went to vote in his district in New York. Despite recognizing him as a celebrity, one poll worker asked him to show his identification before he voted because the worker had heard so much about voter identification laws on MSNBC and had thus misunderstood them. In his defense, the election worker was not the only one exercising caution. The New York Times reports that voters nationwide waited longer than average in this election, due in large part to volunteers on the defensive. Among other things, this resulted in an unusually high number of provisional ballots cast in Ohio.
Yet Republicans’ attempts to minimize early voting periods and push for voter ID laws complicate the electoral process are not the only problems facing our democracy. The rise of super PACs, the unprecedented and exponential rise in campaign spending and the narrative-engineering practiced by the media and political consultants present even greater threats to the integrity of the democratic process in the United States. As enormous special interest groups wield ever greater influence, as more money is spent on candidates representing fewer citizens and as candidates hire armies of people to craft perfectly tailored messages that neither offend nor excite, we witness the gradual decomposition of American democracy.
We have seen in our lifetime the emergence of some kind of hideous electoral-industrial complex. Even as most of the money Barack Obama spends comes from a greater number of donors who donate in smaller amounts, these enormous hoards of cash feed into the same system: the political rumor mills, the campaign consulting firms, the clever and insidious ad agencies. None of this work has any real value to our economy but to perpetuate its legitimacy in spite of its injustices. It is nothing but a complete waste; regardless, it takes money out of people’s pockets, effectively burning it over some thinly-veiled charade.
Is it really so much to ask, then, that the funding for elections be taken as a public expense and doled out evenly? Rather than attempting to reform or regulate the campaign conundrum, we would be better off simply cutting the Gordian knot. The slate must be wiped clean. The influence of money over politics must be stamped out, thus eliminating the material source of the hollow, carefully constructed campaigns that have developed in recent years, getting rid of the dominance of the ever more out of touch two party system and saving billions of dollars which — whether comprised of tax dollars or otherwise — come from groups and individuals that could use the money in better ways.