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Elections: much too important to be left to politicians

By George A. Ricker

With the presidential nominating process well under way and the fall elections approaching, I wanted to offer a few observations about elections and the way we conduct them here in the United States. This is not a partisan issue. It should not matter whether one is a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative, a Green, a Libertarian, a Socialist, a member of some other third party or an independent. The issue of how we choose those who run our government and pass the laws that government is charged with implementing is, or ought to be, of great importance to all of us.

While we may have differing opinions about how best to achieve the goal, I think most Americans want our elections to be fair and honest. I certainly hope that is the case, though I don’t doubt there are some who seek to gain an advantage by corrupting the process. So the comments that follow are not aimed at advancing the fortunes of any political party or politician.

I think elections are far too important to be left to politicians.

The United States of America was founded as a democratic republic. Republican government is representative government. In a democratic republic, those representatives are chosen by the electorate. “We the people…” are the ultimate authority. The success of such a system depends upon an electorate that is informed and involved.

For those who pay attention to such things, it must  be more than a little startling to hear President George W. Bush promising to spread democracy around the world when the American people seem to have so little regard for it here at home.

How else can one explain our curious silence in the wake of recent elections?

It hardly can be argued that we have much confidence in our own electoral process. In 2004 the leaders of both major parties felt it necessary to dispatch thousands of attorneys to polling districts throughout the land in an effort to (a) ensure that their own candidate wasn’t the victim of foul play and (b) ensure that as many roadblocks as possible were put in the way of any who might have the bad judgment to plan to vote for the other guy.

Clearly there was enough partisan posturing on both sides to gag a goat. But hidden amid all the charges and countercharges is the glimmering of an unpleasant reality. There is something seriously wrong with the manner in which we elect people to public office in this nation. And that is especially true of the manner in which we elect our presidents.

While the Electoral College may have made some kind of sense back in the early days of the republic, its useful life was over long ago. That we continue such an anachronistic departure from representative democracy speaks only to the inertia of our own political process. There is no  good reason to continue it. There are all sorts of reasons to discontinue it.

But our problems go way beyond a Constitutional anachronism.

How can we continue a system which allows each state to set its own rules, buy its own equipment and treat the electoral process itself as a kind of political tool to be exploited by whichever party happens to be in power in any given state at any given moment?

How can we continue to allow any elected public official to serve in any capacity on someone else’s political campaign? Even if the integrity of the official is beyond reproach, the appearance of conflict of interest cannot help but undermine public confidence in the process. That’s especially true if the public official in question happens to be the one charged with overall responsibility for administering the election itself.

Why can’t we establish a national election system run by nonpartisan officials using standardized voter registration and standardized voting equipment with software that is owned and controlled by the election board itself? Can we really continue to allow any company to assert a proprietary interest that may trump the public’s right to fair and impartial elections?

Why can’t we establish public financing of political campaigns and the liberation of the system so as to make it easier for third-party and independent candidates to conduct viable campaigns?

Why shouldn’t we require broadcast companies, whose access to the public airwaves is granted them by the people, to make free advertising available to all viable candidates?

Why don’t we the people insist on serious discussions of serious issues and an end to the shameless pandering that goes on in every election?

We need to restore confidence in our own democratic institutions before we hold them up as any kind of model for the rest of the world. That begins with fixing an electoral process that inspires little confidence in any of us. You may agree or disagree with some or all of my proposals. What’s important is that we need to have a national dialogue about this subject, and we need to reach a national consensus about what needs to be done.

At the end of every election, the American people receive assurances from politicians and pundits alike that, once again, the system worked.

That seems obvious. But perhaps the question we most need answered is not whether the system works but for whom.

©2008 by George A. Ricker

* A somewhat different version of this column ran in the Lakeland Free Press before the 2006 elections.

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