When Steve Clemons first asked me to contribute to The Washington Note this week, my reaction was to decline, on the ground of fatigue following an intense few weeks — as many of you know, the memorial service for my father was held on May 31st. However I find the temptation to say a few words irresistible.
Robert F. Kennedy jr. has created a stir with this story in Rolling Stone. Kennedy presents a useful survey of the many abusive tactics and acts of seeming incompetence that marred the administration of the 2004 election, especially in Ohio. Kennedy goes on to conclude that these abuses were numerically large enough to have thrown the election from Kerry to Bush, and for this he has been attacked quite thoroughly by Farhad Manjoo in Salon.
Without getting into back-and-forth of this argument, it seems to me that it is largely beside the point. Manjoo writes that “to prove [Ohio Secretary of State] Blackwell stole the state for Bush, Kennedy’s got to do more than show instances of Blackwell’s mischief. He’s got to outline were Blackwell’s actions could possibly have added up to enough votes to put the wrong man in office.”
This is correct, but a red herring, induced by a strategic error on Kennedy’s part. Kennedy did not need to prove that Kerry really won Ohio. And he should not have attempted to do so. It makes no difference now. George Bush is President and the outcome of the election cannot be changed.
And yet, attempted burglary is a serious crime. It does not matter whether the victim was picked clean. The systematic suppression of the votes of blacks, Hispanics and the young is a huge insult to the election process. It is by itself enough to rob an election of legitimacy. It doesn’t matter whether it did actually change the outcome. The point is, it might have.
Was there such systematic suppression of (for instance) the minority vote? Manjoo agrees there was, quoting a study of Franklin County (Columbus) showing that “the allocation of voting machines was clearly biased against African-Americans.” I witnessed the two-hour lines that were everywhere in the Democratic wards of Columbus that day. I spoke with voters who were deterred from voting because of the lines. And I saw numerous voters turn away from an overcrowded polling place at the end of the day.
People, this is a crime. It’s not a small issue. The right to vote should not be restricted to those who have two hours to spare in order to do it! Time is money, and a wait of that order is exactly like a poll tax, against which the civil rights movement struggled for years.
Many who fret over electronic voting worry — with good reason — over the possibility that the machines can be hacked, though there is no firm proof they actually have been. But machines are a serious problem in a more obvious way, affecting every election. They are a bottleneck to voting.
If a precinct has less machines than it needs, the number of people who can vote in that precinct is automatically limited to the flow-capacity of the machines. When this happens, as it certainly did in Columbus, Ohio in 2004, get-out-the-vote efforts are automatically frustrated. It is easy to fix an election, in practice, by rationing the number of votes that precincts on one side or another can cast. That’s what happened in Ohio. Whether it was by design or incompetence, whether it made enough difference to change the outcome — it doesn’t matter. If large numbers cannot get in to vote, the election is illegitimate on its face.
Manjoo rightly asks for solutions. The right one is to get rid of the machines. That’s what Vote-By-Mail — the Oregon system — achieves. Vote By Mail is tested, popular, effective, efficient and safe. It is not a partisan measure. Where elections are clean there is no reason to think it will favor one party over another. But where vote suppression is a critical element of Republican electoral tactics, Vote By Mail will make a difference. And that could make all the difference in the outcome going forward.
This issue is the central civil rights question of our time, and it’s time to get on it.
James K. Galbraith teaches economics and a variety of other subjects at the LBJ School at the University of Texas. He wrote an article on election reform for The Nation in November 2004.