In What Ways the US Lacks Free Elections

In What Ways the US Lacks Free Elections

by Victor Wallis

Nov. 1, 2004

The criteria for a "free and fair" election are routinely violated in the U.S. in countless ways. Some of them, like the electoral college (which gives disproportionate weight to votes in sparsely populated states), are notorious and of long standing but are only now beginning to show their full effect. Others are less notorious but equally longstanding, like the plethora of different voter-registration laws and the sometimes prohibitive rules about ballot-access. Then there are all the more or less deliberate conditions that have historically limited the franchise, always disproportionately impacting those most in need of change. Of particular note in this latter category are the laws in many states to permanently disenfranchise all who have been convicted of certain types of crime---a practice whose national impact has been to reduce the electorate in communities of colour by several percentage points. Then there is the special status suffered by the inhabitants of the nation's capital (a large majority of whom are African American), who have no voice in the House or the Senate. Another longstanding---though worsening---problem is the financial hurdle facing any party that cannot command the support of corporate capital. This manifests itself in great disparities in access to the media (which otherwise might provide a platform for all organized campaigns). Further aggravating the latter problem is the tight control exercised by the two corporate-backed parties over who gets to participate in the official presidential debates. Finally, there are all the measures, on top of the procedural complexities of the registration process (in most states), which can interfere with the actual casting of votes. The most global and longstanding problem here is the invariable holding of elections on a workday. Although this could be partially offset by advance voting, the latter process brings with it a whole new set of difficulties with implementation (as shown in the recent disappearance of some 58,000 absentee ballots in Broward county, Florida). Further obstacles to voting which have emerged in many states over recent weeks and months include:

  • registration administered by unaccountable private firms (Nevada, Oregon) which have discarded applications by Democrats, who were subsequently denied relief by the courts;
  • rejection of registration-applications on spurious grounds such as wrong-weight paper (Ohio) or irrelevant technicalities (Florida);
  • failure to enforce the federally required acceptance of provisional votes in cases where identity cannot immediately be verified (South Dakota);
  • refusal to accept provisional votes in "wrong" precincts even in statewide contests (e.g., Colorado [re U.S. Senate] and Missouri; court-ruling affecting Ohio and Michigan);
  • threatening students with prosecution for registering to vote in the state in which they are enrolled (Arizona);
  • tampering with unrelated petition-forms in order to double-register certain individuals under two different parties, thereby disqualifying them from voting (Florida);
  • having state officials visit homes in certain districts for the purpose of planting fear of possible prosecution for possible electoral violations (Florida);
  • planning extensive district-specific challenges to voter-eligibility with the objective of slowing down the voting process and thereby discouraging people from voting (Ohio);
  • the use of computerized voting machines which eliminate transparency in the counting of votes, and the refusal to require some independent verification process ("paper trail");
  • the uneven implementation of assistance to voters who wish to correct unintentional commands to computerized voting machines (Florida);
  • the unprecedented contention by Attorney General Ashcroft's lawyers that only the Justice Dept. (and not individuals) can bring lawsuits under the heading of Voter Protection.

It should be kept in mind that even a single state whose outcomes are distorted by such practices can skew the outcome at the national level.

Victor Wallis edits Socialism and Democracy.