I have a number of friends who believe firmly in the old adage, "If voting could change anything, they'd make it illegal," often attributed to Emma Goldman. There's a lot of appeal to this thought, and nothing I say should be interpreted to gainsay Emma's advocacy of direct action to get the goods. I do, however, find the truth to be more nuanced.
Voting can, indeed, change things, and yet it's hard to deny that it rarely does. The problem isn't in voting. It's in how we run elections.
"They" haven't made voting illegal. They couldn't. The US, like all industrialized societies today, prides itself on being a democracy, meaning that power is legitimated by the vote. I worded that last sentence carefully, because we don't live in a society where we pick the best person to be our leader. Rather, we live in a society where a narrow band of political insiders jostle to see who can best appeal to an assortment of economic interests, which are themselves jostling for advantage. At the end of the day, however, there must be an election in which the masses cast votes -- because this is what democracies do.
So, "they" can't make voting illegal. But "they" are clever, and know that's not their only option. In fact, they have a whole range of ways to water down the effectiveness of voting. Here's a run-down:
- I alluded to the most obvious: campaign financing. Both the winner and the loser of the Presidential race for several cycles now has spent the GNP of a small nation on the campaign trail. Add in 535 Congressional races, and countless state and local races. Do major corporations give all that money? No! They don't have give it all. They only have to be at the top of the list of donors to override other, competing interests -- labor standards, ecological concerns, community health or economics, or even other corporations. Candidates know they're being bought. They even know that a lot of corporations contribute to both sides in a race. But it really doesn't matter. They are a product: packaged, marketed, and sold. The only solution to this issue is to ban corporations from donating, in any form, to parties, campaigns, and candidates.
- Almost as obvious is the one problem that can be solved immediately: exclusion of "third" parties from debates. In a democracy, the voters need to hear from each and every candidate, on equal terms. Anything else distorts the core idea of democracy. Every debate in every medium should include every candidate on the ballot, period.
- Speaking of on the ballot, many states still have oppressive hurdles to put candidates on the ballot. These need to be pared down sharply. I wouldn't presume to propose a blanket solution for all states, but I would suggest that there be multiple paths to ballot access, such as petition drives, write-in campaign percentages, or partisan registration.
- The oldest obstacle to voting is the Electoral College. Regardless of how you think Florida went down in 2000, it's an undisputed fact that Gore won the popular vote. In a democracy, that should settle the question. Instead, the man in the White House is the one that came in second. The Founding Fathers [sic] were brilliant on a great many matters, but they flubbed this one. Like Senators, Presidents should be elected by a direct vote.
- Our arcane election system. People who hear about proportional representation and instant-runoff voting are astounded that we still don't have them here in the US. Proportional representation would give parties seats in the legislature in proportion to the percentage of votes they got, and IRV would let voter rank their choices instead choosing one candidate from the list, and would do away with the so-called "spoiler effect."
- The final problem with voting is... problems with voting. The very idea that people would cast votes into an electronic system that cannot be verified in any way is repugnant to democracy. The idea that people should suffer undue burdens to cast their vote is repugnant to democracy. The idea that votes might not be counted accurately and honestly is repugnant to democracy. Voting is the most basic and primary element of a functioning democracy -- hardly its sum total, but certainly its foundation.
It isn't that Emma was wrong. Obstacles to voting are put in our way specifically because voting can change things, and specifically because the formal structures of democracy can be effective... if allowed to be. No, "they" haven't made voting illegal, but they've done everything else they can think of.
If that bothers you, and you'd prefer to live in a real democracy rather than what you see around you, don't look to those who hold power currently to change the very system that put them there. Rather, look to yourself and those around you -- and get yourself to the US Social Forum. The "Democracy Track" will be debating all this and much more, in detail. In fact, there will be an entire Democracy Tent. People who have put a lot of time into these issues will be there, comparing notes. I'll be there, and I hope you will, too.