Here’s a question.

After years of complaints from politicians, journalists, and pretty much everyone about Americans’ waning interest in politics, and concern about dropping levels of voter participation… why were we so poorly prepared in so many places when that trend finally reversed itself?

Turnout was up dramatically this year. MSNBC reports that…

The percentage of Americans who voted was unmatched in at least a generation and perhaps since 1908, according to election experts. Secretaries of state estimated turnouts approaching 90 percent in Virginia and Colorado and 80 percent or more in big states like Ohio, California, Texas, Virginia, Missouri and Maryland.

And that was certainly the case here in Illinois, as well. Nor was this a particular surprise:  it’s been clear for months that registration numbers were up across the country, due to diligent registration drives and enthusiasm about the race, and moreover polls showed that most of those new registrants were planning to vote.

Moreover, for years now (in the wake of events in 2000) authorities at all levels have been trying to modernize the voting system. Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002; new equipment has been purchased and new pollworkers trained in jurisdictions around the country. And 32 states have implemented early voting to spread the process out and take pressure off election day.

And yet… from New York to Seattle, voters on Tuesday faced dauntingly long lines. Not to mention other problems ranging from unprepared officials to malfunctioning equipment to relocated polling places and more. Thousands of ballots seem to have gone unaccountably missing in the crucial Senate race in Alaska.

(I should stipulate that in my local precinct here in Chicago, I encountered no wait and no problems. But I’ve served as a volunteer pollwatcher before, and I know how commonplace such problems can be.)

For a country that seeks to inspire (and often presumes to lecture) the rest of the world about the virtues of electoral democracy, this is an embarrassment. Year after year, voice after voice urges our citizens to turn out and do their civic duty… but when they do, somehow we’re unprepared to accommodate them.

Other countries don’t seem to have these problems. Australia, to mention just one example, has had mandatory registration and voting in place for three generations, and routinely sees 95% turnout. Yet that nation of over 20 million people is able to manage its elections smoothly, without the kinds of logjams reported Tuesday. (Australia also uses instant-runoff voting, which better reflects voter preferences among multiple candidates—a reform often proposed but seldom adopted in the U.S.)

America may have been the nation that introduced representative democracy to the modern world, but being the first doesn’t necessarily make us the best. On the contrary, it seems too often to have left us behind the times. We would be well-served to examine and learn from the voting systems used by other democratic countries.

Perhaps by 2012? But I don’t think I’ll be holding my breath…

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3 Responses to “Broken gears in the machinery of democracy”
  1. A scriptwriter who’s written a movie or two I enjoyed watching has made an interesting suggestion.

  2. movie fan says:

    it’s awesome that there has been this “problem” of long lines all over… people taking a greater interest in public issues is always a good thing

  3. Up here in Canada, we need to get our act back in gear too. “First past the post” election rules keep blowing up in our faces over the last decade or two, although keeping the paper ballot seems to have helped avoid a minefield or five.

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