Doug Amy on the Voting Process in 2008

Monday, November 10, 2008 - 12:00

Following last week’s national elections, Questioning Authority checked in with Mount Holyoke politics professor Doug Amy for an assessment of how the voting process worked this time around. Amy is creator of the Web site Government is Good and has a particular interest in election reform.

QA: It appears that this election went off more smoothly than some had expected, despite record turnout. To what do you attribute this?

DA: The relative lack of serious voting problems was due to a number of factors. Primarily it was a result of increased activity by a large network of election watchdog groups. They have been pressuring election officials for several years, and they monitored many polling places. As a result, many jurisdictions provided more voting machines, increased the used of provisional ballots, and responded more quickly to any problems. Another factor was the large increase in early voting, which made the lines shorter in many areas.

That being said, there were still some problems: reports of broken machines, very long lines (up to eight hours), and some voters becoming discouraged. Much of the problem here is that, unlike most countries, we do not have a national voting system, run by a nonpartisan commission, with uniform procedures and equipment. In most states, partisan politicians control the election process, and some do not find it in their party’s interest to ensure that all voters have equal access to the polls.

QA: Is there any hope of streamlining the voting process and encouraging more turnouts?

DA: Yes, several things can be done. The increased use of early balloting and mail-in ballots could make voting easier. Same-day registration also helps considerably. Another idea would be to change Election Day to the first weekend in November. The evidence that this could increase turnout is mixed. Some experts are skeptical, but one study has shown that European democracies that have voting on Sunday have an average of 6 percent higher voter turnout.

QA: The Electoral College seemed to work well this time. Do we still have to still worry about it misfiring like it did in 2000 when the loser of the popular vote (Bush) won the electoral vote?

DA: Yes, we still need to worry. The chances of electing the “wrong” president under this system remain substantial. Although the wrong person has won only four times in our history, there have been 16 other close calls--where a switch of less than 75,000 votes in key states would have meant that the loser of the popular vote would have become president. The last case of that was in 2004, where the switch of 60,000 votes in Ohio would have given John Kerry the victory, despite the fact that Bush carried the popular vote. Under this archaic and flawed election system, we are in constant danger of an undemocratic result--which is exactly why we should get rid of the Electoral College and move to a national popular vote system.

For decades, most Americans have supported getting rid of the Electoral College. But because it is so difficult to amend our national constitution, that change has not taken place. The current amendment process allows a political minority in Congress, or among the states, to block this much-needed reform.

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