On Election Day, a Tale of 2 Americas

On a day we celebrate the romance of democracy, too many are struggling to exercise the fundamental right to vote.

Voters waiting in line in Newark, Ohio. (Matt Sullivan/Reuters)

You know what's more important and more interesting than the sight of a collection of the candidates' planes meeting on a tarmac in Cleveland? The fact that registered voters in Ohio's urban centers are struggling today to cast their ballots. The fact that official poll workers in Pennsylvania are wrongfully trying to enforce that state's new voter-identification law even after the courts there banned it this election cycle. The fact that voting rights advocates are calling the election process in New Jersey "a catastrophe" because of Hurricane Sandy.

The cognitive dissonance this day is breathtaking. There is the America patting itself on the back for undertaking its civic duty to vote. And there is the America fighting in the streets for the ability to exercise that right. There are the politicians preening on television about how glorious it is that we come together every four years to express our democratic will. And there are their constituents, thousands upon thousands of citizens, earnest registered voters, whose most fundamental right is being swallowed up in a sea of chaos and partisanship.

In Ohio, a federal trial judge held a hearing Tuesday to determine whether software in the state's electronic voting machines could alter votes. (He later denied the request to block the software.) There were widespread reports early Tuesday that machines in Toledo, Dayton, and Cleveland were not working property. In Pennsylvania, NBC News reported that an electronic machine was taken out of service after it was shown to be transferring votes from Obama to Romney. We can send a machine to Mars. But we can't guarantee a man's vote.

Like many of you, I learned in 2000 that our elections, like all human endeavors, are imperfect. But what's happening today is not just the usual collection of bureaucratic snafus. It's not just a series of petty mistakes made by well-meaning local officials. It's irrefutable evidence that, for all its patriotism, America is unable to accomplish the most basic function of a democratic government -- conducting a full, fair, and accurate election. Exactly how many statewide voting "catastrophes" are acceptable? Exactly how many uncounted votes are too many?

As a percentage, more Americans voted in 2008 than voted in 2004. And more voted in 2004 than in 2000. This is precisely what political scientists had hoped would happen -- the great political awakening of the American people. But it is becoming clearer with each passing election that the states, which have a constitutional obligation to conduct these elections, are unable or unwilling to service the growing tide of voters. Leave aside Secretary of State Jon Husted's blatant partisan hackery -- why aren't there enough voting machines in Ohio?

No matter who wins the White House, we are seeing again before our very eyes the gulf that exists between the two Americas -- those who can vote easily and those who must struggle mightily to exercise the franchise. It is a divide based upon race or class -- and also upon geography. Voters in the dozens of states which do not have systemic voter problems look aghast at what is happening in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. But the Constitution requires us, through the Electoral College system, to be stuck with the lowest common denominator.

Shit rolls downhill. So do our elections. As I wrote last month, and again over the weekend, the whole presidential ballgame today may depend upon the counting of provisional ballots in Ohio, the standards for which are going to be determined later this week by the federal courts. That ought to terrify every voter in every other state of the union no matter which candidate they voted for. It's little wonder that citizens in other democratic countries look at us and laugh at the false pride we express about the integrity of our democratic processes.

Until every registered voter is able to vote freely and fairly, until every local election official is able to act professionally, until there are enough voting machines in every precinct in every state, until election rules are administered by nonpartisan officials, until every legitimate vote for one candidate is counted as a vote for that candidate, none of us should feel a great sense of patriotism about how we conduct our national elections. Today isn't a day to pat ourselves on the back. It's another day to remember how far we have to go to finally get this right.