lessons from America

Accounting for the slow voting and counting

Hooray, I feel over the worst of the jet lag.  Never had it so bad, but then I don’t normally have such a crazy schedule and lack of sleep on ‘holiday’.  So after a few days of quiet from me and my blog, I’m back in business.  

And happily, this election isn’t over.  Missouri hasn’t been officially declared yet (though McCain will win it and the state’s totemic ‘bellweather’ status will shrink).  But the big news is the big 60 is still theoretically on for the Democrats in the Senate.  Al Franken and Norm Coleman are locked in an almighty battle for Minnesota’s Senate seat, with a recount virtually guaranteed given the 200-odd votes separating them.  The Alaskan Senate seat is also going the distance, but is even more remarkable; with long-time incumbent, convicted felon and race leader Ted Stevens seeing his narrow lead completely disappear and go into the negative as more votes are counted.  And there will be a run-off for the Georgia Senate seat in December, as it has finally been confirmed that Republican Saxby Chamblis did not gain 50%+ that was needed to won the seat outright.

In my many conversations with people since returning to London, it is clear that one of the things we Brits have trouble fathoming out is why the way US citizens vote and how those votes are counted is so problematic, slow and open to partisan challenges.  We get upset – and the media in frenzied fits of hysteria and pique – when the results aren’t known within a few hours; when there have been technical difficulties with voting machines and some ballot paper confusion (Scotland 2007); or when the count doesn’t start til the next day and a pleasingly high turnout makes the process take longer and carry on late into the night (London 2008). 

There are four aspects I want to comment on: (i) the voting lines on election day (ii) State differences (iii) post-election counting (iv) the continued role of parties and money.  This post will deal with the first one, and I’ll return to others later.

First up those queues.  Listening to election day coverage on the car radio on the drive up to Chicago was a surreal experience.  It was like dial-to-dial traffic reports; except it wasn’t traffic hotspots that were being broadcast, it was polling station queues and reported problems.  CNN and other major networks set up hotlines that you could call; and most of interviews throughout the day were done with people on location at some of the trouble spots.  My favourite reports came from Virginia and the Carolinas, where along with other more serious issues, they encountered problems caused by damp ballot papers jamming the machine.  Apparently, it was raining outside and drips of water were falling from voters’ faces, hands or clothing onto the ballot paper and the machines couldn’t cope. 

However, this election day voter disenfranchisement was a dog which didn’t bark – at least not as vociferously as had been expected.  There were ridicuously long lines in some places, and voters in a few areas had to wait 6-8 hours.  And that isn’t acceptable.  And there will undoubtedly have been a few places where the distribution of polling stations and voting equipment was purposely gerrymandered to unfairly disadvantage the other side – usually that means not enough resources in African-American or other high density, low income neighbourhoods.  And if there had been a close result nationwide, some of the reported problems might have received much further scrutiny. 

Yet it should be remembered there was no meltdown. As far as I am aware, no counties had to take emergency action and extend polling hours to cope, as happened in several states during the Democratic Primaries.  Part of this is attributable to the unprecedented rush for early voting (in those states that allowed it), which relieved the pressure to some extent on 4 November.  Ironically, it was often those people most worried by election day problems that had the longest queues, as they – and many of their neighbours – early voted.   Lawmakers are so impressed by the success of these early voting initiatives that there is a prediction they will encourage all states to bring in some form of it for 2012.  The other reason for the lower level of problems was probably because of all the hard work, on-the-ground organising and observing put in to making voting fairer. See ProjectVote for more.

The other factor to bear in mind, which is news to a lot of Brits, is that long voting lines doesn’t need to signify a ‘third world’ (I hate that term) democracy – at least not in a negative connation.  It doesn’t have to mean that the US is some hapless banana republic when it comes to electoral administration, though there are room for many major improvements.  Neither does it have to mean that American citizens are imbued with a civic delight and an enthusiasm to vote irrespective of the hardships of waiting in line for hours akin to those uplifting scenes in post-Apartheid South Africa.  Though this year, for this election, that actually did feel an appropriate analogy; especially looking at the faces of those who were in the queue at my polling station well before the doors opened. 

One key reason for the lines, and one we don’t realise, is just that the process of voting takes a lot longer than it does here.  It’s those lengthy ballots, voting not just for president, senator and congressman, but for local politicians, judges, sheriffs and varied other elected positions. And then often a range of statewide and local ballot initiatives (referendum) too.  Democracy takes time.  At least several more minutes per voter.  And then it is often not just a case of going in, making a couple of pencil marks, folding up the ballot paper and depositing it in a box, as we are used to.  Voters may have to scan their filled in ballot paper through the machine, ensure that is done right, then deposit the paper version in a box.  All this takes time, slows down the number of voters that can be processed through the polling station, and can easily and quickly result in queues building up.


November 14, 2008 Posted by | counting votes, Uncategorized | , , , | 2 Comments