A cornerstone of the United State’s representative democracy is an active citizenry. Voting for leaders through the election process would certainly seem to be the most logical route for citizens to fulfill this role. However, campaigns and elections at the national level over the past decade have laid bare procedural, organizational, legal, and technological problems that appear to be widespread. The troubling reality then appears to be that the American electoral process sometimes frustrates the promise of American democracy, and doubt in the country’s election integrity is quite recent.
The aftermath of the 2000 presidential election revealed pervasive inadequacies in the American electoral process, as well as an electorate deeply divided over issues both domestic and international. Controversies surrounding the state of Florida and the now infamous hanging chads, charges of irregularities and fraudulent votes, claims of race discrimination, and a proportionally high number of citizens who simply chose not to vote led many to believe this election had somehow been stolen. Adding to these issues were critics who denounced the electoral college as antiquated, citing the fact that George W. Bush was elected even though his opponent won a plurality of the vote. A large number of Americans expressed doubt after 2000 not only in the election process, but in democratic institutions overall.
Certainly none of these problems are without their complexities. Americans vote in remarkably varied ways, through mail or by absentee ballot, in person on election day or weeks in advance, and depending upon state, county or district, with paper, punch out, or electronic systems. This diversity opens the door for a great deal inconsistency. So many differing voting methods have led to the implementation of numerous rules and regulations imposed to ensure proper counts and prevent voting fraud. However, many political science scholars argue that minorities, the less educated, and those with lower incomes, all statistically Americans with the lowest voter turnout ratios, are the groups most hindered by these additional regulations, and therefore the ones most discouraged from participating in elections. Adding to these critical issues is the rising debate over the electoral college. While the founders saw the electoral college as a way to keep order in the country’s national elections by keeping the masses from making the final choice, many Americans today are demanding that their vote be counted directly. But even a direct vote might not adequately reflect plurality. Smaller states could be overshadowed by the larger states due to their sheer numbers, and direct voting would not solve the problem of low turnout or those who fail to register.
Despite the numerous questions over election integrity crystallized in 2000, United States citizens are witnessing perhaps the most significant electoral run in the history of the country. Record turn-outs are taking place, campaign contributions are toppling amounts from any election in the past, and two candidates are vying for the democratic nomination, a female and an African American, that the U.S. government had once denied even the right to vote. More importantly, the citizenry has become involved in larger and larger numbers in newer methods of discussion, debate, and participation. Nonetheless, the electoral process requires more than sustained intellectual debate. Improving the process of voting and registration must be at the forefront of future legislation. A national process that makes it easier for all citizens to take part in the electoral process and provides that all persons’ votes count equally must take place.
There is a blatant irony in the realization that America stands as the world’s sole superpower, yet continues to use an electoral system that is less than transparent and fair to all of its citizenry. Americans must have the power to directly elect leaders who understand the character of the current political and social conflicts and factors. Moreover, the electoral system should unequivocally ensure that voting rights are protected and that procedural steps to limit fraudulent voting do not inhibit legitimate voters. The electoral process is integral to America’s unique form of democracy and the right to vote is at the heart of representational government. The historic ramifications of the 2008 elections should not end with two storied candidates. Americans must demand that the playing field be leveled and that all citizens’ votes count equally. Of the many serious issues facing U.S. citizens in 2008, election reform is perhaps the least recognized.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.