Three am, at Joe’s Diner – is everyone in this damn country named Joe? – and the night shift pit crew at the Tropicana is in to unwind. The place is a dive, with a 24 hour breakfast, and grease on the grill that’s older than Obama’s speech writing team, and the croupiers are lounging on torn stools, their neckties askew watching the MSNBC repeats on a portable TV on top of the soda fridge. There’s long lines of early voters in Fayettesville, North Carolina, and an angry mob of McCain supporters protesting them. You know people think they’re going to lose when they’re protesting the very act of voting – a touch of the Zimbabwes about that.
There’s a political consultant from Ohio being interviewed. He was hired to sort out the mess that resulted from inadequate voting systems. That had caused queues lasting up to five hours in the state, with possibly hundreds of thousands either walking away in frustration or never getting a chance to vote. His verdict: this year might be worse. Cut to another report, of voting machines, where a vote for Obama was recorded as a vote for McCain. “We fixed it eventually,” says a poll clerk. Oh that’s alright then.
“Man,” says one guy over a black coffee “if we ran things like that, we’d all be in prison.”
Indeed. Nothing more forcefully suggests that this is failed state than its simple refusal to get the simple act of voting properly funded and working. You would think a country whose legitimacy depends on nothing other than its electoral process – no monarch, monoculture etc to bind it together – would decide, especially after 2000 and 2004 to ensure that whatever happened the process was smooth and transparent.
Ha ha, not Americans. With the electoral process run by a hodge podge of federal, state and local authorities, with electronic machines, mechanical machines and paper ballots, with different times, processes and hours, and most of all, with a lack of money to ensure that everyone gets to vote within five minutes of turning up at a polling place, they are heading for a national nightmare – a close result so murky that one section of the population will simply refuse to accept it. Why can’t- ay yay yay yay.
Man oh man. At this point, lest I come off sounding like a 19-year-old socialist alternative recruit, it’s probably necessary that I offer the usual caveat and say there’s a lot I like about America, from southern friendliness, to Alaskan frontier spirit, from The Wall Street Journal to the first fifteen minutes of Letterman, casual conversations and bottomless coffee in small town diners, Los Angeles art deco, Texas prairie, the energy of New York, the timeless grace of Savannah, and on and on.
I like high school graduations and homecoming ceremonies, the whole sense of ceremony around everyday life that marks them off as utterly different to Australians. I like science fairs, and seeing thousands turn out to watch high school football games on a Friday night, off-duty soldiers in airport bars and Portland girls with prison tattoos, rye whisky and Bud light, A and W vanilla cream soda, chicken-fried chicken and tobaccoless joints, Jules Feiffer and Roy Acuff, Wonkette and the National Review, and much much more. Okay? Got that? There’s a lot to like!
But even the most robotic Americophile would have to admit that there is something deepy dissociated and dysfunctional about a country that, after one entirely botched election and one reasonably disputed one, — a country whose political system is teetering far closer to the edge of losing popular legitimacy than many people suspect – that cannot, eight years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, organise an efficient and transparent system for voting in a President.
It seems the ultimate proof of the argument that Thomas Frank has mounted in his recent book The Wrecking Crew – it is not that the Republicans, in control of Congress and the White House these past six years, wanted to create minimal but efficient government. They seem, to judge by their results, hell-bent on creating bloated and bad government, and the election mess is the ultimate upshot of that.
Really it’s hard to know where to start. The first disaster is staggered voting, so that fully a third of people will have cast their ballot before November 4th. This is a recent innovation – really, until the 90s, the US shared the belief with other electoral systems, that voting was ideally a single day on which the country came together and made a decision, with early and absentee voting as an exception for people who would otherwise be denied their say. Why has it so quickly become a standard alternative?
Firstly, because voting is on a workday, a Tuesday, for starters, and all attempts to move it to a Saturday, or guarantee a real right to leave your workplace and vote have failed. The result? People miss out, or the voting is crowded into the hours after five pm, ensuring that some people never get to vote. Since this is usually people whose jobs are, erm, inflexible with regards to taking an hour off, its the Democrats who usually suffer.
Secondly it seems to fit with an American illusion that a community will continue to exist no matter how much it is deformed by individual choice. Voting used to be understood as a quasi-sacred act, part of the ‘civic religion’ of America, and Tuesday was chosen because it should be at the start of a week, but that some people would need 24 hours travel time (no travelling on the Sabbath) to get to a polling station. The slippage in the idea of a single day’s voting has come with the idea of convenience, the internet, scattered lives and communities, the whole vast dissociation of collective life whose effects the country has not even begun to properly reflect upon.
Just as some of the southern mega-churches, in recent years, quietly began informing people that they wouldn’t be having Christmas day services (because people stay local at Christmas, so who wants a service with 100 people in a converted aircraft hangar meant for 20,000?) and never twigged that this might, just might, indicate a problem with their style of worship, so this scattered, the popularity of partial voting hasn’t registered as some harbinger of a social
The main problem of staggered voting is partial information. You never get perfect information about a candidate of course, and things often emerge after an election, but we do understand an electoral process as being a period of scrutiny and judgement at the end of which we all make our individual choices TOGETHER. In the past few days for example, we have had Barack Obama’s statement that he wants to ‘spread the wealth’ around – he was talking about increasing the purchasing power of average Americans, but nevertheless – and the revelation that Sarah Palin rorted the expense system to take her kids on official travel, including a five day stay in a four star New York hotel for round-heeled daughter Bristol, even though Palin’s NY gig only lasted a day.
Anyone who’s already voted has done so without this knowledge, and can reasonably say ‘had I known….’. The point of a single collective vote is that no-one can kibitz, everyone’s on the same page, and the result is thus binding. The more you fragment the vote, the less people have a sense they were part of a common experience. In revolutionary terms, there’s an argument that the more fragmentation the better, but I presume that is not the intent.
The second problem is the under-funding of the electoral process, which is so mad as to beggar belief. You would think that a society based on the revolutionary idea of choosing your own leader would take pride in the process of doing so. Even though voting is handled on a county-by-county and state-by-state basis, it would be easy enough for Congress to vote mandated funds that ensured that as many people as necessary were trained and ready to work as required.
The counties, as I said, control much of the process, and this is the next problem. The county level is necessary because of the American process of electing umpteen public officials – from judges to local water board supervisor – who get elected. This is seen as some sort of essential attribute of American democracy going back to the blah blah in Boston. In fact it dates from the turn of the twentieth century, when the huge ‘Populist’ movement swamped both major parties, establishing the principal of referendums, primary elections – and individual voter propositions by which voters can directly amend the constitution or pass specific laws.
Electronic machines were seen as a solution to the huge amount of different types of ballot that would have to be printed, but with the multiple failure of such machines, most county officials are also printing up paper ballots as well. Most machines are meant to print out a paper record to enable a recount, but in a half a dozen states there is still no permanent recount record of your individual vote.
Got that? In half a dozen states there is no possibility of an exhaustive recount of votes. How is it possible to continue down this path, after the last two elections, with equanimity?
The answer has got to be that, despite endless discussion of a thing called ‘America’ and what it is, a lot of people don’t really believe in it, or believe they live in it. They live in some characterless middle-space, some day to day struggle for everyday existence, with the actual lineaments of power and government so far away you may well try and catch the wind. I honestly don’t understand why people six months, a year ago, weren’t occupying government offices, demanding that the thing be got right. God knows what will happen if this election is stuffed up or delivers an unclear result for either side, but I would suggest that the legitimacy of the entire American political system is in the balance here. And who knows? A total collapse of such may be just what the place needs.
On MSNBC, the polls are being discussed, the results calling it for Obama ranging from 14% to 1%.
“It’s a crap shoot,” someone says.
“I watched craps for an hour yesterday, and I don’t understand it,” I say.
“Pal,” he says turning to me, “I’ve worked the tables for five years and neither do I.”