[By Nic Lindh on Friday, 07 November 2014]
I became an American citizen in 2006 and have voted faithfully in every election since. And every election I’m struck by just how willfully archaic the American system is.
Which I think stems from the fact that America loves the idea of America more than it loves the actual America.
The idea of America is of a hardy frontier nation of hamlets full of white people, all bandying together to fight off the enemy, however you defined the enemy. (Hint: Usually people who weren’t white.)
Which America sort of was, you know, 300 years ago. But the America that exists now is a nation of people of different skin colors living in sprawling metropolises, not knowing their neighbors, trying to make ends meet by working post-industrial jobs.
But before we get into the current problems, let’s first cover the basics of the American voting system. For people unfamiliar with the system, the process goes like this:
First, you register to vote and indicate which party you want to be affiliated with: Democrat, Republican or Independent. Yes, you have to indicate who you’re going to vote for. Nobody here finds that odd. The reason for this is so you can vote in the primary election where each party elects their candidates. This is so the parties don’t have to actually do the work of figuring out who their representative should be. Efficiency, you see?
Then, depending on which state you live in, many different things can happen. This is because each state gets to make up their own rules for how to run elections. Yes, even elections for federal office. Nobody seems to find this strange, not to mention a massive waste of time, energy and money.
In Arizona, the only state where I’ve voted, we can choose to vote by mail. This is civilized and good.
So in Arizona, a bit before the election, your ballot arrives.
You fill it out and mail it in and hope it didn’t get lost somewhere.
Ah, the ballot. The piece of high-grade paper you are sent. On the ballot are the choices you’d expect, like president, governor, secretary of state and whatnot. But it doesn’t end there. Nope. America is a direct democracy where the voter gets to have her say on many, many things.
Which I’m sure made sense in the 1800s when the majority of people lived in tiny burghs where everybody knew everybody and of course you should have your say in who sits on the school board.
However, now that the majority of Americans live in metro areas, turns out I don’t know who Joe Blow is or whether he’d be a good candidate for the corporation commission.
Not to mention the judges. International readers, did you know America elects it judges? Again, something that made sense in Deadwood but is now just archaic idiocy.
And then there are the propositions. These are suggestions for laws proposed by either citizen initiatives or the legislature. In theory this is so the legislature can wisely get the people’s direct input on controversial proposed laws so everybody gets their say, but in practice it’s usually ideas the legislature recognizes are so nutty they don’t want their names behind them but at the same time special interests they are beholden to want to see them pass, so they kick them out into the propositions. “Hey, I tried.”
Not surprisingly, the citizen initiatives that manage to collect enough signatures to become propositions tend to also emanate from special interest groups. So they are often concerned with keeping particular industries unregulated.
You take the sheer amount of people you have to know well enough to decide whether to vote for or not and the amount of propositions you have to read through and think about together in order to feel good about casting your ballot and it leads to three classes of voters:
The wonks who’ve researched the heck out of everything. All three of them;
The fired-up base who are rolling in to vote a straight party ticket; and
The ones who just can’t be bothered to deal with all this bullshit and also need to get to their second job so they can keep food on the table. Those don’t vote, especially not in a midterm election.
In the 2010 midterm election, Arizona’s voter turnout was 35%. Which is not a shameful number at all. Nope.
So, every two years the citizens of America must make sure they are still on the voter rolls, hoping there hasn’t been a new rule change they didn’t hear of that kicked them off, then make sure to get the time off to go vote on a Tuesday.
Yes, a Tuesday. America loves democracy so much we decided to have our elections on a work day. And if you live in a state without mail-by-vote and your boss won’t give you time off to go vote? Well, clearly you didn’t deserve to anyway.
The hours the polls are open of course differ by state as does the density of polling places. Because it’s important the states get to make decisions about these things which clearly differ so widely between states since they are not all peopled by humans. Or something.
Seriously, this is not the way to do this and it hasn’t been the way to do this for over 100 years.
It’s embarrassing and scary how large a portion of the second-largest democracy on the planet finds this state of affairs “well, shrug, fine” or even scarier “best ever hell yeah!”
The country I adopted is better than this. Or at least should be.