By Global Public Square
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Imagine a country on election day where you know the results the instant the polls close. The votes are counted electronically, every district and state has the same rules and the same organized voting procedure. It is managed by a non-partisan independent body. Sounds like the greatest democracy in the world, right? Try Mexico. Or France, Germany, Brazil. Certainly not the United States of America.
America has one of the world’s most antique, politicized and dysfunctional procedures for its elections. A crazy quilt patchwork of state and local laws with partisan officials making key decisions and ancient technology that often breaks down. There are no national standards. American voters in more than a dozen states, for example, don’t need ID. But even India, with a GDP just 12 percent that of ours, is implementing a national biometric database for 1.2 billion voters. The nascent democracy in Iraq famously dipped voters’ fingers in purple to ensure they didn't vote again. Why are we so behind the curve?
The conservative columnist David Frum recently wrote an excellent article for CNN.com and he tells a story about the 2000 presidential election. The city of St. Louis, Missouri had outdated voting equipment. So there were long delays in voting. But St. Louis was heavily democratic, so Al Gore’s campaign asked a judge to extend voting by three hours.
The judge agreed. But then George W. Bush's campaign protested, and the judge was overruled. Meanwhile voting had already continued 45 minutes past the legal time.
Is that how elections should work in the world’s greatest democracy? In most other democracies, an independent national body would make the big decisions. There would be non-partisan observers at the polls. And of course, there would be modern, functioning equipment. Even Venezuela, which had elections last month, had electronic voting booths with biometric technology across the country.
We’ve been criticized around the world for this. I saw a scathing 116-page report about our electoral process published by, of all places, Russia. Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s translation of it: “The electoral system and electoral laws of the United States are…contradictory, archaic, and, moreover, do not meet the democratic principles that the U.S. proclaims are fundamental to its foreign and domestic policy.”
I hate to say it, but Moscow has a point. (On the other hand, we do have one thing the Russians don’t: actual free elections.)
This election season we’ve seen attempts to shorten the early voting period to further one party’s chances of victory. Our ballots can be as long as a dozen pages. In some places they are paper ballots, and in some they are electronic. And Election Day always falls on a Tuesday – a working day. Every four years we see the chaos of American elections, but nothing changes.
Last week, international election observers were banned from nine states. Some of these men and women were threatened with arrest. Maybe we should start learning from election officials from abroad, not try to throw them into jail.