In a riff on the title of the book What’s the Matter with Kansas, Ron Klain’s recent column for the Washington Post was “What’s the Matter with Florida?”
The column could have more accurately headed “What’s Wrong With America’s Electoral ‘System’?” Note the quotation marks around the word system; they’re there because (much like the situation with health care), we don’t have anything that remotely deserves the word “system.”
As the New York Times reported just last Sunday in an article about voting glitches,
Though it wasn’t a 2000 redux, the 2018 midterms exposed persistent problems and the haphazard way the voting process was administered across the country. In Arkansas, three-member boards handle elections at the county level, while in Connecticut all 169 towns and cities use their own registrars.
The inherently political nature of running elections can call into question some officials’ decision-making.
Klain served as general counsel for Al Gore in that 2000 recount effort in Florida; he says he’s often asked why these problems keep happening in Florida.
Part of what we are seeing now in Florida, as we did in 2000, is the product of factors specific to the state: persistently weak election administration in key counties, perennially close and hard-fought elections, and a colorful group of political players that seems ripped from the pages of a Carl Hiaasen novel. But the most important thing to know about what’s happening in Florida is that it has little to do specifically with Florida at all.
Take a step back and look at the big issues playing out in Florida, and what you’ll see, instead of Florida’s foibles, are three critical challenges to American democracy as a whole.
It’s hard to argue with the negative effects of the three challenges Klain identified in his column: we allow “interested” officials to supervise elections; we entrust the electoral process to amateurs and incompetents; and state election systems are poorly run and underfunded.
The recent midterms especially highlighted the first of these. As Klain notes,
Florida’s chief law enforcement officer, Gov. Rick Scott, who is also the Republican nominee in the Senate recount, is in a position to allege crimes by election officials, attempt to seize voting machines and dispatch state troopers to try to intervene in the post-election dispute. But a similar spectacle has been unfolding for months next door in Georgia.
As chief of election administration in Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp— who is also the Republican nominee for governor, in a vote also being contested — stalled more than 50,000 new voter registrations, supported closing more than 200 polling places in predominantly minority areas and purged 1 in 10 Georgia voters from the rolls. In Kansas, Secretary of State Kris Kobach — again, also the Republican nominee for governor — employed many of the same tactics as Kemp, and fell just short of being elected.
These are egregious conflicts of interest, but such conflicts are only slightly less concerning when partisan officials not running for office oversee elections. Those officials have, as the saying goes, “a dog in the fight,” and significant incentives to game the process to favor their political party.
The clusterf**k in Florida also illustrates Klain’s other points: the machine recount in Palm Beach County was hampered because old machines overheated from processing so many ballots; and 30,000 ballots in Broward County recorded votes for state agriculture commissioner but not the U.S. Senate. That weird result turned out to be the result of a poorly designed ballot. More incompetence in the state of the hanging chad….
Klain’s most important point, in my view, is the following:
But again, that’s not just in Florida. While some election misadministration (such as inadequate numbers of voting machines in targeted areas) appears to be a deliberate effort to suppress the vote in minority communities, much Election Day mayhem is caused by systems that are poorly run and underfunded.
No matter how much we hail democracy on the Fourth of July, come November, elections are just another government service: In communities where thin budgets and lax leadership produce scant bus service, slow ambulance response times and unkempt parks, we should not be surprised to find confusing ballots, bad instructions at the polls and slow vote tabulation.
For the past 40 years, Americans have been beating up on the very idea of government. We have voted for people whose proudest “qualification” is that they know nothing about public service, and for people who insist that taxation is “theft” rather than the dues we pay for civilization. We lionize the small percentage of our population who have the means to retreat into gated enclaves and provide for their own comfort and safety.
We the People no longer support government’s most basic obligation: to provide an adequate physical and social infrastructure administered by competent public servants.
It shows. And not just during elections.