A Minute with Mike-
Election illuminates state of our democracy

This column submitted by Michael Jacobson on 11/22/00.

To me, the most amusing part of the contested presidential vote in Florida is the hand-wringing by some that this shows our democracy in a poor light.

This election has not put our democracy in a poor light, though it certainly brought to light some flaws and inaccuracies in our system.

What this election has revealed is that our system is not nearly as hallowed as many people previously liked to believe. The narrowness of the Florida vote has drawn attention to the laws covering elections and the mechanics of the voting process, and we've discovered that the voting process isn't as objective, efficient, or perfect as some would like to believe.

I take particular umbrage to derisions that this election made the United States look like a Third World country. The condescension in that belief stems from a view of the United States as a perfect model of "democracy," with the implication that the rest of the world is lacking in some respect.

The United States has wonderful political and social freedoms, paid for with blood and sacrifice, as we were reminded again on Veteran's Day. But claiming perfection is an obstacle to improvement, and a real benefit of the Florida situation may be the resulting examination of the inadequacies of our voting system.

Those people who lament that we look like a Third World country seem more concerned about appearances than the actual functioning of our democracy. That's pure vanity.

That our democracy has faults was apparent before the latest billion dollar campaign. The fact that, after all that cash, the outcome hinges on a few hundred votes in the Sunshine State has focused national attention on it, but abysmal voter turnouts and calls for campaign reform point in the same direction.

Isn't it ironic that the election will be determined by a few hundred votes when millions of Americans, half our eligible voters, refrained from voting out of mere indifference?

Interestingly, as I was out of the country in the weeks before the election, I was frequently asked if I had voted by absentee ballot. When I explained that I had been disenfranchised by the unreadiness of the ballots prior to my departure from Minnesota, Australians would ask me if I would have to pay a fine.

"For what?" I wondered, the first time I was asked.

"For not voting," came the response.

Voting is compulsory in Australia. Failure to vote results in a several hundred dollar fine.

I'm not sure which is worse: having half of the country not vote, as is the case here, or resorting to punishments to push citizens to use that privilege. I'm too young to remember when minorities ­ African-Americans, women, property-less men ­ fought for the right to vote, but they must roll in their graves at the way half our country ignores their right to vote each fall.

In Florida, both campaigns will fight for every vote they can getŠor prevent their opponent from getting. That state's 25 votes in the Electoral College are now pivotal, and both campaigns are using legal arguments, political influence, and flowery rhetoric like "one man, one vote" to secure victory.

The Gore campaign argues that it doesn't want to disenfranchise any voters, especially theirs, but the sad truth is that millions of people in Florida chose to be disenfranchised.

On the other hand, Bush's camp is arguing against hand recounts, which would seem to me to be the most accurate way of counting. Humans, despite their political agendas, should still be more accurate than machines. "It is totally reasonable that the most accurate way to do it is a carefully run recount," said the president of a company that makes punch-card readers!

The Florida drama will destroy the notion that elections in America are infallible and not subject to human judgment. In the past, we just ignored the few percent of ballots that were not counted.

If Gore wants to insure that every vote for him is counted correctly, I would allow him every opportunity the law allows. Not out of any love for him. I wouldn't have voted for Gore in Minnesota, and I wouldn't vote for him if I was allowed to revote today in Palm Beach County.

Let's be patient and wait for this mess to be sorted out.

My parents went to a banquet with a group of international journalists over the weekend, and a Chinese woman ­ who had never voted in her life ­ marveled at how America could hum along as the votes were counted.

And that's exactly what makes our democracy, despite its flaws, great.

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