Florida syndrome

In the mid-terms, America seemed as concerned about the electoral process as the politics.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

Three days after the US mid-term elections, and the turnout figures remain elusive. This, from the nation so enthusiastic at polling and counting and measuring and monitoring the elections as they happen that, two years ago, the presidential winner was named before he had even won.

But clearly that’s the point. While everybody has been keen to talk about the Bush victory and produce tables showing the proportion of seats belonging to whom in Congress, the US media has been strangely quiet about the numbers of people who actually voted in this election. A new affliction seems to have developed – post-Florida syndrome, where nobody wants publicly to count the votes, because they are not sure if they can trust the result.

It was an incredible moment back in 2000, when Democrat leader Al Gore acted as though he was president, before finding out that it wasn’t him after all. The spotlight rested initially on the Florida recount, and the possible reasons why it came to that – but it soon spread to the ins and outs of voting methods in other US states, with their confusing ballot papers and dodgy chads, and the potential for mistakes and downright corruption.

America was left with a president who, at first at least, was recognised as legitimate by only half of the electorate; and the uncomfortable realisation that the process designed to elect the most powerful figure in the world was possibly even more dodgy than many had already believed.

This time around, there seems to have been as much concern about the election process itself as there has been discussion of difference in politics and policy. Seemingly terrified of getting it wrong again, the main pollster, Voter News Service, simply did not give out exit polls, citing a glitch in its computer system (1). On the ground, there has been a lawyerly obsession with the legality of the process, and a geeky enthusiasm for all kinds of high-tech new voting methods.

A report in the UK Guardian claimed that the Democrats deployed an ‘army’ of 10,000 attorneys around the country ‘to contest any irregularity, real or suspected, in the agonisingly close congressional elections’ (2). An article in the right-wing US Weekly Standard, published on election day, published a piece headlined ‘The Floridazation of American Politics’, with the strapline: ‘Democratic dirty tricks continue, in Maryland, New Hampshire, and at the DNC.’ (3)

The trouble is, anti-corruption breeds suspicion of corruption – even if there is none. Employing election monitors and observers across the USA, as though these were elections in the UN-sponsored non-democracies of the Balkans, breeds a sense of mistrust about the electoral process and its end result. This time around, all might concede that Bush won the day – but that doesn’t stem the creeping cynicism about whether democratic elections are in fact some elaborate con.

What of the whizz-bang technology, designed to rid the voting system of its Florida bugs and encourage swathes of new voters to come play on the machines (and maybe vote as well)? As journalist Edward Walsh explained in the Washington Post on 4 November, after the Florida debacle some states made changes to their election laws; and in October 2002, Congress enacted legislation that mandates changes in voter registration and balloting procedures, and authorises $3.86billion to help the states overhaul their election systems (4). The mid-term elections give an indication of how the new voting may look.

The state of Georgia, for example, has brought in touch-screen machines, which allow voters to review their ballots and correct mistakes before the ballot is cast. The voting machines are designed to be accessible to the disabled, and at every polling place at least one had audio equipment, allowing blind voters to cast their ballots in private, without assistance (5).

Before election day, a trial run of touch-screen voting machines in Gwinnett County, Georgia, apparently impressed the poll workers. ‘I don’t see how anyone could miss it’, enthused Gary Hays, 59. Steve Bauchamp, a technician working on the computerised system, warned that the machines might even prove too popular. ‘This machine is going to be the bottleneck’, he said. ‘People are going to play with it, and voting time is going to be increased. It’s a new toy.’ (6)

The obsession with the election process may be motivated by real, political problems, such a low voter turnout and less-than democratic elements of the American political system. But the interest in machinery indicates that both the assessment of the problem, and proposals for its solution, are entirely technical and smack of distrust on all sides.

Aware that voters may not trust the system, the techies cut out the human middle-man; aware that voters cannot be trusted to turn up in the first place or vote for the right person first time, the techies give them new toys and the chance to keep changing their minds about who to vote for. Does it work? I doubt it very much.

‘Voter turnout up, but not by much’, reads the headline of one article squirreled away on (7). The turnout figure seems to stand at around 39 percent – high by 1.4 percentage points than the last mid-term election in 1998, which had been the lowest mid-term turnout. The same article indicates that 28 states had a higher turnouts this year, and 22 states had lower. What does this tell us?

‘[F]or once, the voting process itself will be of almost as much interest as the outcome of key races’, opined Edward Walsh in his Washington Post article (8). As it happened, the election finished to much discussion about how this represented a swingeing endorsement of the Bush agenda. Of course, this election did represent big gains for Bush, and no doubt there were interesting developments in particular states – for example, to do with the Hispanic vote and the black vote, and the tensions this implies.

But the turnout, and the technical character of the election discussion, indicates that the major insights are about the political process today, rather than about any decisive political shift.

A New York Times/CBS News poll on 3 November found that nearly half of voters said they were less enthusiastic about voting this time than in previous Congressional campaigns (9). ‘In poll, Americans say both parties lack clear vision’ read the headline, drawing attention to the finding that only one in three respondents said that the Democrats had presented a ‘clear plan for the country’, and one in four said the same thing about the Republicans. More than half of respondents said they believed the nation was heading in the wrong direction, and 59 percent said they believed that an attack on Iraq would worsen the threat of a terrorist attack in the USA.

The pollsters’ own prejudices aside, such responses – combined with the turnout figures – suggest that while Bush gained ground in this election, it was not because of a wave of public enthusiasm or support for the Republicans or for Bush’s war on terror. In an era of personality politics, when even the Democrats recognise that they are at a low ebb, Bush emerges the stronger figure. As Mark Steyn (who also has his own prejudices) put it in the UK Daily Telegraph: ‘If Bush is too dumb to be President, how dumb do you have to be to be consistently outwitted by him?’ (10)

And while much has been made of Bush being only the third president ever to make Congressional gains in a mid-term election, this should be put into perspective too. The second president to make such gains was the last one – Bill Clinton, in an election widely taken to be a referendum on the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Bush’s victory could be taken as an historical anomaly – but it could be equally taken as an indication that this is the way the political process goes these days. Faced with few choices and mustering little enthusiasm, is it so surprising that mid-term voters endorse the status quo?

In many ways, the mid-term elections were elections for our time. The personal trumped the political, the technical trumped the turnout. The big issue is how to manage the voting process; and as for the question of what people are voting about…It depends which commentators you happen to read.

Read on:

Bush has won the battle, but not yet the war, by Mick Hume

Decaying Democrats, by Jonathan Goldberg

(1) US election exit polls abandoned, Guardian, 6 November 2002

(2) Parties deploy armies of lawyers at polling stations, Guardian, 6 November 2002

(3) The Floridazation of American Politics, The Weekly Standard, 5 November 2002

(4) Election Day To Be Test of Voting Process, Washington Post, 4 November 2002

(5) Election Day To Be Test of Voting Process, Washington Post, 4 November 2002

(6) Election Day To Be Test of Voting Process, Washington Post, 4 November 2002

(7) Voter Turnout Up, But Not By Much,, 6 November 2002

(8) Election Day To Be Test of Voting Process, Washington Post, 4 November 2002

(9) ‘In poll, Americans say both parties lack clear vision’, New York Times, 3 November 2002

(10) Democrats stick to vaudevillian knockabout in midst of drama, Daily Telegraph, 7 November 2002

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Topics Politics


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