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Blocking the Ballot Box

Blocking the Ballot Box

By Kareem U. Crayton

Stealing Democracy: The New Politics
Of Voter Suppression

By Spencer Overton
W.W. Norton and Company, 2006
224 pp., ISBN: 0-393-06159-0
$24.95 Hardcover

The 2000 presidential election offered Americans two significant lessons about the politics and institutions that govern them. First, many people learned the significance of the Electoral College. Notwithstanding how the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately resolved the presidential election, the choice between the Democratic and Republican candidates rested not with the voters — or even the majority of them — but with about 500 virtually unknown electors. The second lesson, and a more fundamental truth about this political system, was about voting itself. This basic feature of any democracy is a disturbingly fragile enterprise in America. Florida’s prolonged ballot counting controversy provided a case study of how too many voters in this country go to the polls to choose a candidate for office but fail to do so, either because their ballot is mishandled or because the voter is denied access to the ballot altogether.

It doesn’t take an expert to see something seriously flawed about this process. How can the world’s most powerful nation and arguably its most advanced democracy run elections in such an inept and incompetent manner?

The politics of correcting this dysfunctional system is the subject matter of  Stealing Democracy, an important addition to the national conversation about reform. The book is a great primer for those who do not know much about how elections work but realize that there is a pressing need for improvement. Spencer Overton’s contribution is significant because of his experience as a member of the national panel that considered various ideas for reform. His perspective is further enhanced by his attention to the important race and class effects that such reforms can have on limiting access to the ballot. Overton forcefully reminds us that if the “right to vote” is to be more than an empty constitutional platitude, we must take steps to ensure that the franchise is accessible and effective for everyone in our society. 

One can locate Overton’s view of the current system in his reference to an institution most Americans know a lot about — movies. To paraphrase Overton’s point from the movie “The Matrix:” This election system based on equal votes and public accountability that you observe as a voter is not really what it purports to be. In fact, a “patchwork” of state, county and local entities responsible for elections often leaves voters and their ballots subject to incompetence,neglect and (at times) outright manipulation. Political parties and interest groups regularly — and often legally — misuse this rag-tag structure in order to achieve their own ends. The needs of voters are an afterthought. In this light, Election 2000 was less of an aberration than a symptom of a chronically flawed system. Indeed, some of the same problems emerged in Ohio in 2004.

But Americans should not settle for adopting just any change. Some proposals can do more harm than good. Stealing Democracy nicely supplements its policy arguments with stories from real people who actually bear the effects of these changes. A good example is Overton’s discussion of the proposal requiring voters to show photo-identification. Advocates claim that this change deters fraud, but Sioux Indians in South Dakota (large numbers of whom do not have cars or driver’s licenses) found that the law disproportionately suppressed their votes in an extremely close Senate race in 2004. Their preferred candidate, Democrat Tom Daschle, lost. 

But Overton’s reliance on the public for answers sometimes goes too far. He could have concluded with a proposed model for election administration, but again he turns to citizens for ideas. This approach is not wholly unwarranted; Overton’s point is that any system reform should empower voters. However, the tone echoed in all of these interviews is one of uncertainty. This is precisely where Overton, the scholar, can provide an idea of what the “right answer” is to complex policy questions. He shares his thoughts about a few elements of reform, but they are not really organized in a fashion that can promote debate. 

Nevertheless, this book provides some important points that will inform a conversation that has become increasingly dominated by those in power. Unless we shift attention to making the election system more accessible and effective for all citizens, this wave of reform will replace old problems with new ones for voters. In this light, Stealing Democracy provides crucial perspective about the need for both well-reasoned and meaningful election reform.

Dr. Kareem U. Crayton is assistant professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law.

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