How is it that the world’s most prominent democracy is so incredibly bad at being, well, a democracy?
8 years ago I looked on from Australia in shock with the rest of the world as America re-elected the least competent and most destructive person to sit in the Whitehouse, since, probably ever. After feeling a strong sense of empathy post 9/11, I joined with the rest of the world in thinking in 2004, “well, you voted for this moron again – you made your bed, so lie in it”.
4 years ago I looked on from Australia – this time having spent a bit of time living in the US – with a sense of pride and hope that the mistakes of 8 years earlier which clearly set American and the free world back almost a decade could be righted. And the American voting public delivered in spades, but as we all know, the damage had been done. Obama promised change, but in retrospect he should have promised harm minimization. The last 4 years hasn’t been pretty.
This year was different. I’ve been living in the US for a 15 months, paying taxes and being part of society here and while I’m a lot closer, I’m strangely more distant. This stuff now actually affects me on a daily basis, but I’m noticeably excluded as a non-citizen. The natural human response to rejection is to say “well, screw you too then electoral system that won’t have me – I’ll ignore you too”. I’ve been too busy to be a political junkie and anyway, this has to have been one of the least inspiring, un-visionary campaigns in memory. Better just to just tune out, especially when in our house we just stream TV (no political ads).
But the things you notice actually being here are really amazing. And disturbing. Seriously, America, what the fuck is going on with a nation that sees itself as the leading light of democracy and freedom?
Here’s a few real and jarring things I wouldn’t have appreciated if I hadn’t been here to see it for myself. These stand-out in a sea of things that wouldn’t be so hypocritical if this country hasn’t spent so much blood and treasure promoting democracy elsewhere in the world.
Touch-screen voting machines, but forget technology in voting.
Coming from little old Australia where we use paper and pencils to vote, I figured that America was just ahead of the curve, wrinkles, bugs and all.
Turns out: not so much.
One of my colleagues wanted to vote today; in a busy start-up, time is tight, but she was fine to head off and make sure her opinion counted any time she wanted to go.
With more than 2 hours until polls closed, I asked her if she needed to take off and she mentioned she’d already given up. “I’d have to head back to Berkeley where I’m registered from when I was in college last election if I want to vote, and there isn’t time now”.
Now, remember, this is a first world country. One that insists that citizens and even non-citizens get a unique Federal ID number so we can all be tracked and identified (the Social Security Number). What do you mean you can’t just go down to ANY POLLING PLACE IN THE COUNTRY, give your details and a photo ID, and vote? WFT America? Sarah was in the same state, but a different county, and unless she’d planned her time out more than a week in advance to ask for and return a postal absentee vote, she was locked out.
Even if you are prepared, voting can cost you $50 or more. Another friend who grew up in Boston wanted to vote. She asked for the absentee voting papers to be posted to her new place in California. The authorities got it here last Thursday. She filled them in and realized that she would have to pay $50 to make sure they would get back to Boston in time to count before the cut-off. WTF America? If people can vote on faulty machines, why can’t they vote online? Even if that is too hard, why the hell does a piece of paper need to be mailed overnight express to the other side of the country in a FEDERAL ELECTION?!?
4 hour waits to vote? It isn’t like today was unexpected!?!
So, the systems suck unless you never move and make sure your registered home address is a stones throw from where you actually live. OK, fine. But why are there 4+ hour lines to actually vote on a day they’ve known is coming for 4 years!?!
In Australia, I’ve waited no more than 20 minutes to vote in an election – ever. You rock up at the nearest school/library, you run the gauntlet of people trying to give you propaganda, you cross your name off the list (or go over to the out of town queue and cross it off a national database), and you vote. Done. Easy. Fast.
Instead here it seems the parties get to play special games. If you’re in a county/state controlled by the blue/red guys but you live in an area controlled by the opposite color, good luck.
Long queues, few booths, few election officials. Making it hard to vote and reduce turnout for the other guy is seen as a legitimate tactic. WFT America? I’m all for electoral and campaigning tactics, focus groups and marketing your message to give your team an advantage, but deliberately starving certain populations of resources to deny them the right to vote without standing in the sun/snow for 4 hours is bullshit. This isn’t about promoting/spinning a message. This is about taking away the rights of fellow citizens to vote in a democracy. In the memory every fallen American who died trying to bring democracy to Iraq/Afghanistan/Eastern Europe/South Korea/Vietnam, you should be ashamed of yourselves.
Branch stacking is nothing. Try population stacking.
From the outside, you might be wondering why there are so many elected nut-jobs in America. The short answer is because the way they carve up electorates / seats / districts encourages it.
In Australia, there’s a concept known as branch-stacking. Primaries (known as pre-selections down-under) are where a party chooses their person to stand as their candidate in the election.
In seats / districts that are tight (known as “swing” here), candidates are selected by their party because they’re the best – they’re respected, they have broad appeal and can work to represent all of their constituents.
In seats are safe (known as their color, red=republican, blue=democrat here), the battle isn’t for the public ballot – that is pretty much a sure thing. Instead, the battle is for the party base, which encourages nut jobs on the fringe. This happens in all representative democracies, but in the US it is a LOT worse.
Instead of having an independent umpire draw the lines on the map to say who is in what Seat / District, here they’re drawn (predominantly) by the party in power at the State level. They’re political in nature, and the result is frightening. If you’re a Democrat and you’re in power, and you know a particular part of your district votes Republican, you can change the boundaries so that those people are included in a different district, one that is more Republican. That way, you don’t need to keep them happy, and your seat / district is safer. Funnily enough, the other guys don’t usually mind – they also get to focus on preaching to the choir, rather than coming up with policies that make the county/state/country better.
This is how the Tea Party went from being a bunch of angry flat-earth types and became a political force. Ignorant, simplistic, selfish and deluded, instead of being marginalized as fringe outliers these crazy buggers rose to prominence by eating their own – incumbent Republicans – because they knew they just had to energize their own team by being more extreme than their Republican brothers. The Democrats have their own fair share of nutters too of course – the Tea Party have just done a better job of showing us how mad they are.
Growing up in Wollongong – the equivalent of a super blue safe seat for the Democrats – I got to see up close just how much of a cancer this one-sided electorate could be. Words like corrupt, incompetent and out of touch come to mind. Populated exclusively by candidates who are former union officials – the 2nd least trusted “profession” in Australia it was reported recently – the “safe” status of the Wollongong region has led to all sorts of dodgy back-room deals where the decisions about who gets to keep power have nothing to do with the people. This in turn has fostered a strong sense of neglect and mistrust in the electors – why be engaged when you know a corrupt and incompetent candidate is going to get re-elected to “represent” you anyway?
I’ve always felt this was the rotten heart of the city where I grew up and wish it wasn’t like that, but almost all of this country works this way – and not because of demography, but because of a false construction of elector districts.
Fucked up, rotten priorities
Sergey Brin was right. This system has forgotten what democracy is – it is just about the parties fighting each other and the public are just ways of tallying who’s winning and losing, while all of us lose.
If this system spent a fraction of the money they spend on lawyers on things like polling booths in independent redistricting commissions that they spend on TV commercials and lawyers to try and exclude the ability of others to vote, America would be in a much more legitimate position to take its place as a leading light of democracy.
Unfortunately, today, the electoral and representative landscape here place better represents something that rhymes with that: hypocrisy. WFT America?