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Lady Liberty in OpinionEditorials.com   10 January 2005

One of the most sacred rights we have?at least in the eyes of many Americans?is the right to vote. With such a right, many believe that bad politicians can be peacefully removed from office, and that unconstitutional laws can be reversed without bloodshed. There are, of course, just a few problems with this scenario.

Perhaps the biggest problem we have with voting as a check and balance on bad politicians and unconstitutional laws is the fact that too many voters are inclined to take advantage of what benefits them personally. A bad politician for you, for example, might be one who raises your taxes or who works to pass laws that take away your guns. That very same politician would be a good one, though, for the person who receives government benefits courtesy of your tax dollars, or who is afraid of anything that goes "bang!" You might think of a representative as doing a poor job for you if you lose your own job thanks to a decision he's made; the very same officeholder might win votes from the man who gets your job thanks to a law singling out his minority status for special treatment.

Although it's illegal for a politician to buy votes, it's not against the law for him to effectively trade for them. By weighing the costs and benefits of the likely votes for or against any given program or project, politicians often make their decisions based not on what's best or what's right, but rather what's best for them and right for getting the most voter support come the next election. The fact that politicians do consider votes shows that votes and thus voters are still important; the unfortunate corollary that many people can be effectively bought negates the votes from those of us who do try to use them as a carrot and stick for liberty rather than for ourselves.

Many Americans are under the mistaken notion that their vote is important because we live in a democracy. That's not the case. We live in a Republic. That means that our majority votes elect representatives, and it's the majority vote of the representatives?whether in Congress or in the Electoral College?that makes the final decision. Local elections are, of course, directly democratic in nature. Lest you suddenly think that makes at least those elections more meaningful, see Voting Problem Number One...

Apathy and ignorance go hand in hand as contributing to another significant problem with elections in America. Even in a hotly contested election where opinions are strong and strongly divided, a record turnout is often only around half of the eligible voters. Where are the other half? At home, watching election returns on TV and complaining about whoever or whatever is in the lead at the moment. Despite their complaints, it may be a good thing that they don't really care enough about the election results to contribute to them. Many eligible voters, unfortunately including many of those who do get up of their sofas to vote, know little or nothing about the candidates or issues on the ballot. They typically vote based on what a friend has said, the most recent TV ad they've seen, or worst of all, according to what letter follows the candidate's name on the ballot.

Despite a system that's largely corrupt and those who've learned all too well how to work that system, and despite disappointing levels of both ignorance and apathy in the general voting population, most Americans still seem to think that voting is a good idea. They traditionally support efforts toward democracy in other countries, and they'll proudly talk about "majority rule" at home. What they don't realize, however, is that an undiluted "majority rule" is what the Founding Fathers feared could?and would?result in what they called a "tyranny of the majority," hence our republican form of government.

By "tyranny of the majority," they meant that if most people felt one way, they might insist that everyone feel the same way or that they at least be forced to live as if they did. That's a simplistic explanation of one rationale for the existence of the Bill of Rights. For example, it effectively means that even if most Americans are Christian, those who are not may practice their own faith (or lack thereof) without interference or discrimination. If the majority were allowed to vote on gun ownership, in many parts of the country that would effectively mean that no one would be allowed to have guns. Though inroads have been made into individual rights, majorities have by and large been prevented from usurping the rights of the minority. (The other and more important rationale for the Bill of Rights was to protect everyone from the tyranny of the government. That's working a little less well these days...)

There are some people who are disinclined to vote at all. They believe that any vote indicates the acceptance of an elected representative's power over them and their lives, and they don't want to give up that responsibility for themselves. Far from being apathetic or ignorant, they have a stronger sense of personal responsibility than most and are well versed in government rules and regulations, many of which they consider unnecessary at best. Some consider most elections and politicians corrupt for reasons such as the ones I've mentioned here; others wouldn't vote for even the most honest candidate ever to put his hat in the ring simply because they don't believe in giving carte blanche authority over their lives and property to anyone else. The more bad decisions that come out of Washington with every passing year?decisions we must all, by law, abide by?makes this particular group of non-voters sound more sensible all the time.

One thing that virtually everyone can agree on where voting is concerned is how it works at its most basic level: People cast ballots. Their choices are counted. The choice with the most votes in its favor wins. Simple, yes? Just as obviously, when votes are counted, the counts must be accurate if the voting is to have any meaning whatsoever. People can be angry or unhappy at election results, but to doubt them is to undermine the government at its very foundation. That's why it's surprising that the authorities in Ohio aren't being more cooperative with an investigation there.

The state of Ohio was a crucial state in the presidential election just past. Ohio's 20 electoral votes, as it turned out, essentially determined the winner of the presidency. The vote was, in statistical terms, a relatively close one. Only a percentage point or two separated the two major candidates. But early in the morning of November 3, John Kerry conceded the election acknowledging that his campaign wasn't going to make up the more than 200,000 vote difference between him and George W. Bush. Two other candidates, however, thought that accuracy was more important than winners, and they filed a lawsuit in Ohio accordingly.

Green Party candidate David Cobb, and Libertarian Party candidate Michael Badnarik, went to court in Ohio to demand a recount. Both men are well aware that there's no chance whatsoever that either of them won the state. But both men think that, if voters went out to vote, the least they deserve is to have their vote counted. Ohio reluctantly undertook the recount and, in the end, George W. Bush still won the state of Ohio. According to the authorities in Ohio, he won by (as of this writing) about 119,000 votes. The major parties are nodding sagely and saying they don't expect the election results to change. By this, they must mean that they don't expect the winner to change because the results are changing with every county's recount report! That's not a good sign where accuracy is concerned. Meanwhile, Ohio's Secretary of State (who also happened to chair the Bush/Cheney campaign in the state) has certified the vote and refused to be deposed for lawsuits questioning the election results.

Not surprisingly, the Reverend Jesse Jackson insists that black voters were disenfranchised in Ohio and that there should be yet another recount. One alleged problem in the last election is that, in many of Ohio's urban areas where the most black precincts are found, the state of Ohio was trying out electronic voting machines. Aside from complaints that insufficient numbers of machines meant hours-long lines, reports have been received that some machines confirmed to voters that their ballot had been cast for someone other than the person they'd ed. Others were allegedly misprogammed in some way and voting tallies were subsequently in error. As a result, the General Accounting Office will be investigating electronic voting machines. Meanwhile, back in Ohio, Jackson and a coalition of supporters have now also filed suit, this time to overturn the election results in the state all together, even as officials there maintain the machines "did a good job" and that "electronic voting went well" on November 2.

In an interview with MSNBC, Jackson made a valid point (a rarity for him) when he said that exit poll anomalies in Ukraine signaled corruption, and the world clamored for a new election (a new election there did bear out the exit polls from the first election). He said that exit polls in Ohio also had anomalies and that, when those anomalies are combined with the lack of a "paper trail" from electronic voting machines, a new election in the state made sense. David Cobb is inclined to agree with Jackson, and is urging his supporters to "reject Ohio's tainted electoral votes." Cobb's campaign is also working to organize protests in Ohio and in Washington D.C.

That, of course, didn't happen. What did happen, however, was only the second delay in confirming an electoral count in more than a hundred years. A group of Democrats determined to push the issue; as a result, both houses of Congress were required by law to discuss the case in point. After a few hours, the Bush victory was confirmed. Participants in the Congressional protest say they always knew what the outcome would be but that they felt it was important to at least bring to the fore the fact that questions concerning the election remained in some places.

Someone once said (I personally seem to recall it being Robert Heinlein, but searching the Internet has given me results ranging from "anonymous" to an international workers union) that if voting really mattered, it would be illegal. That's a pretty cynical way of looking at it. The fact that it is still legal to vote (at least at the moment) doesn't necessarily mean voting doesn't matter. But that Ohio?and apparently some other locations across the country?is dismissing concerns of accuracy in counting the votes is a pretty good indicator that, at least in 2004 and in some places, it didn't.

General Accounting Office will be investigating

Jackson and a coalition of supporters have now also filed suit

Jackson interview with MSNBC

Rejection of Ohio's tainted electoral votes urged

A group of Democrats determined to push the issue

Afer a delay, the Bush victory was confirmed


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