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Read This Before You Vote

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If one were to believe the hype, nothing less than the fate the civilized world is riding on the results of the upcoming midterm elections. American-style democracy, we're told, will step in and sort things out. Reminds me of T.S. Eliot: "An election is coming.  Universal peace is declared and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry." Not everyone is fooled, of course. "I think it is dangerous to confuse the idea of democracy with elections," says Indian novelist, Arundhati Roy. "Just because you have elections doesn't mean you're a democratic country."

 

Questioning America's status as a democracy is typically considered nothing short of blasphemy in polite circles but if next month's elections are so fair and free, why are there so many questions about how votes are ultimately counted? Then again, the vote count issue would be a lot more pertinent if we had worthwhile candidates running in races in which the outcome was actually in doubt.

In the 2004 primary races, 65 percent of the congressional races were uncontested and 58 percent of incumbent Senators who ran were unopposed. In addition, the candidate who raised the most money won 91 percent of those races. Speaking of money, how can U.S. elections be deemed truly democratic when only "major" candidates are allowed to participate in televised debates and only those accepting inordinate amounts of cash from wealthy/corporate donors are considered "major" candidates?

Even if vote counting was made foolproof, debates were open to all, and genuine campaign finance reform was enacted, you'd still have to address the fact that Americans are more likely to vote for the next American Idol than their next congressional representative. The 2004 election saw the highest voter turnout since 1968 yet that was still only 60 percent of eligible voters.

Needless to say, the election-related issues discussed above may explain some of this ballot box apathy but, on a more practical level, have you ever wondered why the voting is held on a Tuesday instead of over a full weekend? Turnout is bound to be higher over a Friday-Saturday-Sunday period. Also, a "none of the above" option would not only allow disgruntled voters to express their disdain with the alleged two-party system but also might create a run-off election or even a new set of candidates. In 2000, 50,455,739 voted for George W. Bush; 50,996,039 for Al Gore; and 2,781,109 for Ralph Nader (the rest were scattered over a handful of other candidates). In 2000, there were 195,027,520 eligible voters in America; 156,421,311 were registered, but only 110,604,647 hit the polling booths. That's 56.7% of eligible voters participating. Almost 85 million more Americans could have voted in the 2000 presidential election...but instead they opted out. 85 million.

In the end, of course, terms like "democracy" mean far less than the actions performed in their name. Mahatma Gandhi asked: "What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?" If those 85 million stay-at-home voters decided to show up and say "no" to the current system and "yes" to true democracy, we'd finally have something to justify the election hype. 

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