Many people are unaware, that before 1824, the average American had no direct vote in the election of our President. Electors would be chosen for each state by their legislatures, who would then proceed to the Capitol to elect the President. Those who did know this fact, often assigned that decision to a patrician mindset, an elitist attitude that the peasants could not be allowed to decide things for themselves. However, given that the Founding Fathers made this country by fighting against exactly that sort of arrogance from the British, rather drives against them embracing the same attitudes themselves. Further, we know enough about the sentiments of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and their like, to know that these men were strong advocates for Democracy. So why the Electoral College, and why no direct vote?
First off, the Electoral College is a creation which reminds us we are the United States of America, not meant to be a centralized power which dictates terms to subjects. We are a federation of states, joined together for a common good and a common law. Our election of a Chief Executive is conditioned to guarantee the voice of every state, and to work against any one group subverting the process to their advantage. Yes, even back in the days of the first George W, there was a worry about fraud. The initial fear was the possibility that a state would select their electors through political preference, then claim they were only following the voters’ will. By allowing each state to select their electors in whatever fashion they chose, the process was relatively transparent for its time. By 1824, confidence in a national ballot system was sufficient to try a public election. You may recall, however, that the man who won the Popular Vote in the 1824 election, Andrew Jackson, lost the Presidency to John Quincy Adams, through political machination. One reason President Jackson had such little cooperation with Congress (he won election in 1828, and again in 1832), was that Jackson never forgave the politicians for (in his opinion) cheating him out of his first victory.
Another election worth examination, is Lincoln’s 1864 re-election over General George McClellan. At the time, no President had been able to win re-election since Jackson, and for most of the campaign McClellan seemed to be favored by both the public and by Congress. Yet, the election went strongly in Lincoln’s favor, by four hundred thousand votes out of the four million cast, and by an electoral count of 212 to 21 (the 80 EV belonging to Confederate/Rebel states were not counted). Running an election in the midst of a civil war, with part of the nation not participating, and a real challenge in getting the military votes counted and all the state results validated, is gargantuan, and should be remembered for its relative smoothness.
After the Civil War, the press came to great prominence, and their ability to influence public opinion and government actions can be seen by recalling the simple phrase “Remember the Maine”, by which prodding the United States declared war on Spain and invaded Cuba. Editorial recommendations on candidates are older than most of our grand-parents. Without an extended review, as media came to maturity, the power to sway opinion grew with them. The fact that individual magnates and powerful conglomerates with their own agenda own most established media, means that the debate in any election is something less than optimal.
If I were to ask which Presidential election is the most likely to have been decided by fraud, many votes would be made for the 1960 Presidential contest between Vice-President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy. Fraud may well have been factors in Illinois and Texas, though it is difficult to say for sure that it decided those states, much less the election. For comparison, despite widespread allegations of fraud in the 2000 Presidential contest between Vice-President Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush, investigations showed the election was actually one of the cleaner ones on record, with no verified deliberate attempts by any major party to prevent, disrupt, or alter the vote. Partisans will disagree, but the fact that extensive investigations failed to support any of the charges, speaks volumes.
All of this may seem droll or laborious, but it works to the points I want to make here. The simple fact is, Voter Fraud is possible, but it is unlikely, and it is even less likely to decide the election.
First, how it could happen. We start with paper ballots. These have been mishandled all sorts of ways in the past. There are cases of ballot boxes being found years later in basements and lakes, witnesses reporting ballots being removed and puched again to invalidate them, and of course, Florida 2000 reminds us, by way of the chad and the ‘butterfly’ ballot, that simple confusion and voter error also invalidate some of the vote. Historically, anywhere from 1 to 2 percent of the vote is lost through voter error, and in a close race, that can easily make the difference. The solution, we were told for many years, was to tabulate votes electronically, and a lot of states poured money into programs to set up electronic booths. Of course, it has occurred to people since 2000, that electronic voting doesn’t have paper ballots to inspect; recounts are done in a matter of seconds, and there’s no legal recourse if you don’t like the result. So, no matter how the ballots are cast, there’s going to be doubt. It comes with having a secret ballot, and that’s just the way it is.
But the vote can also be manipulated by other ways. I’m not going to waste your time with detailed conspiracy theories, but I do think it’s worth looking at the chain of events in getting a vote. First, you have to get voters registered, then you have to shape their opinion, and then you have to seal it in their mind, so they are convinced to vote for your guy. Then you have to get them to show up to vote. After that, you need to collect the votes and tally them, the precincts and the states certify them. At any of these points, there is the potential for someone to screw around with the system, but I don’t see that happening.
Consider the favorite theories flying around out there, about how the election is supposed to get heisted. First off, there’s the ‘Diebold will steal the election for Bush’ theory, because a lot of the election machines are made by Diebold. The problems with that come from the difficulty anyone would have, in getting fraudulent ballots accepted. You see, Diebold may have a lot of employees who like the President, but they don’t all like Dubya, and it would not be all that hard for a Diebold employee to find out and report the scam. In spite of years of claims, though, it’s never come up that even one Diebold employee has revealed any such plot. The reason this claim fails, is because conspiracy theories on this scale would involve too many people to stay quiet.
The next favorite theory, is the ‘Democrats are getting a lot of phony registrations’. The reason that falls apart, is because A – there is no law against getting people to register, and what is known does not appear to involve registering non-qualified voters, and B- it’s one thing to get folks to register, and quite another to get them to show up and vote. I would also mention, that if someone waits to register until they are talked into it, they are not highly motivated to then go to the polls.
But there’s a lot more to this. A big factor, often overlooked when we get cynical, is that most people follow the rules. For instance, I really want the Houston Astros to win their playoff series, but I don’t want them to cheat to get the win. Bush and Kerry supporters, in the main, are regular people, and if word gets out that someone is cheating, it hurts their candidate. Next, Strength-of-Support is a critical component in an election. The big-value states are pretty much out of play, leaving only 5 or 6 states where it could go either way, and the votes could make the difference. Even then, the fact that even successful fraud would be extremely unlikely to move the numbers more than 2%, means that it would be hard to swing any state. I’m not saying it can’t happen, just that it’s a tall order.
Now, why it won’t happen. I’ve already mentioned the high-value states. The FEC and Justice Department are already looking at Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Oregon; it will be hard for someone to pull something while the attention is there. If someone manages to swipe New Hampshire or Hawaii, it would unlikely to get caught, but much less likely to matter.
Also, you want to consider, this election is not that likely to be close. Sure, we want to stay energized, but the key component to Kerry’s campaign, has been to run on anti-Bush. The trouble with that is 2-fold; first off, just because someone decides not to vote for Bush, doesn’t mean Kerry automatically gets the vote. The guy may just sit out. Also, despite everything all year long, Bush’s Job Approval numbers have been strong and steady, indicators that a ‘hate Bush’ campaign is not a good strategy.
Next, what do you suppose the authorities are doing right now? One reason we hear all these potential fraud stories, is because the law is looking for just this kind of mischief. Fraud you hear about weeks before the election, almost never comes to pass.
I’m not saying don’t think about it. But I am saying, don’t be worried, just speak up if you see something suspicious, and remember that most of us, almost all, want a clean election. Yes, the media will spin their stories, and we have already gotten sick of all the attack ads. We have all seen how the real issues get shunted aside in favor of what really amounts to gossip, and after all of that, it can be hard to sense the value of our vote.
But for all of that, the process has been tested and improved for generations, and mainly we can trust it. Not implicitly, but enough to do the job.