Another electoral disaster coming up

 By William Butler Salazar

(Published October 27, 2002 by the San Juan Star)

          Democracy to succeed depends upon the will of the majority of the governed to be done. If the governed fail to vote, if vested interests exert undue influence while financing the electoral process, and if the electorate’s will fails to be accurately determined on election day, a crack will form in this bedrock of democracy that will ultimately bring decay to the underpinning which provides dynamism to the United States of America.

Election Day 2002 is but four weeks away. More than 1,180 Bills covering election issues await action across the nation. Our politicians continue to debate all major issues. Reform of election financing is in limbo. Money has been slow coming for the nationwide improvement and standardization of reliable vote casting equipment. If 2000 was an electoral fiasco, this November’s election portends total disaster, in more than one way.

        The May 1993 passage of the National Voter Registration Act, widely known as Motor Voter, significantly reduced structural barriers to voter registration by linking it to driving license applications. It was designed to encourage voter registration and to remove discriminatory and unfair obstacles to registration procedure by providing broad access to all sections of the electorate to the voter registration process. The single most important thing that Congress can do now is to enforce its compliance. A dozen states have done nothing toward implementation of this most important foundation of our election process.


Voter registration is the icing on the cake. What’s inside stinks.


If the results of spring and late summer statewide primaries for governor and U.S. Senator are any guide, the patriotic fervor generated by the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is not translating into increased political participation. Turnout in the states which had statewide primaries in both major parties is down more than 50% from the high water mark for turnout, 33.2 percent of eligibles, in 1966.


A bare majority of the Voting Age Population, 50.1 percent, cast ballots in the 2000 elections, hardly an endorsement of the idea of electoral resurgence. But those who did not are instructive. The only groups to decline were white males, among the ethnic and racial groupings; 18-20 year-olds among the age groupings; those who had completed only one to eight years of schooling among the education groupings and the unemployed.


            Campaign financing is the most flawed part of the entire process and directly affects voter turnout. Federal law prohibits direct campaign contributions from business, labor unions, ideological groups or trade associations. Proving once again that where there is a will there is a way, the Political Action Committees, or PACs, have been a fixture of the American political scene since organized labor invented them in 1943. They get their money not from the sponsoring group’s treasury, but from its members or employees, neatly bypassing federal laws that prohibit direct contributions from companies or unions.


             PAC’s come up with “Hard Money”. Then there is “Soft Money” and also “Serious Money” which combines all direct contributions to candidates and political parties, hard and soft. Campaigns are also financed by contributions to candidates by large ($200+) individual donations, by corporations through individual donations by their executives, employees, and members of their immediate families. Business contributors are by far the largest source of campaign money. Labor follows a distant second in overall contributions, with ideological contributions coming in third. Organized labor and some ideological groups have been particularly active raising money to be spent on issue advocacy or get-out-the-vote activities.

Here’s what Common Cause President Scott Harshbarger said of soft money: "Our democracy is dangerously close to becoming a government of, by, and for wealthy special interests. When these special interests contribute millions of dollars ($245,000,000 in the 2000 elections) to the national parties, they know they're going to have politicians from both parties who will at a minimum listen to them and even go to bat for them. You get what you pay for, and those who can't pay are left with little confidence that the process works for them.”

Conclusion from the above: this isn’t democracy, it’s rule by the rich. Now on to point three, counting the votes, accurately.

A country that can accurately dispense money from automated teller machines ought to be able to reliably count votes, said Charles Vest, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Vest and David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology, have vowed to merge the brainpower of two of the nation’s most prestigious scientific institutions to develop a better way to tabulate election results. We must find a solution," Vest said. "Each of us must be confident that his or her vote has been reliably recorded and counted. A country that has put a man on the moon and an ATM machine on every corner has no excuse."


          Telephone voting, electronic balloting, early voting, satellite offices in shopping malls, and mail balloting are the cutting edge programs in election administration. Whether the election process would be best served by a strategy of evolutionary rather than revolutionary change must be decided quickly if we are to attract a higher percentage of voters.


           Within a month the election process will once again be put to test. Once again the process will fail. Of more than 140,000,000 registered voters less than 30% are likely to exercise their vote. Campaign contributions will again overly influence the election to the point that the electorate will be hard pressed to vote for the best candidate. And the election counting machinery will again produce confusing results.


The Clinton/Lewinsky joy ride killed the urge to vote in the 18 to 30 year olds. Barring some dramatic event such as a terrorist attack, war or a market crash, it is likely that the hopelessness of the poor, the ugliness of the modern television campaign and the cynicism about biased coverage of politics in the media in general and television in particular will be among the factors that will deter a turnout equal to the leader of the democratic world.


William Butler Salazar