Closed System

Thursday, July 22nd, 2004

Could be the world’s oldest democracy is also the most complacent. Gauged by at least one potent statistic, the percentage of eligible voters who actually vote, we’re hardly a beacon to the world anymore; in fact, we’re in 139th place.

Since 1945, the United States has had a participation rate among its voting age population, in 26 national elections, of an anemic 48.3 percent, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

This ranks it well behind not only the rest of the First World (Italy, 92.5 percent participation for the same time period; New Zealand, 86.2; Austria, 85.1; Germany, 80.6), but also behind such struggling, tentative democracies as Bosnia (82.8), Namibia (80.4), Bulgaria (77.5), Belize (72.1), Togo (69.3), Grenada (64.8), Nicaragua (62.0) … the list goes on. And on.

And the news is even worse, because our participation rate is steadily plummeting. It hasn’t been over 60 percent in a presidential election (according to since 1968, and off-year congressional elections since then are routinely in the “why bother?” 30 percent range.

Even as Americans violently export pseudo-democracy to Iraq, we’re losing interest in “of the people, by the people, for the people” here at home. This may come as a shock to superpatriots, but we seem to believe in — love — actual democracy less than many people beyond our borders, for whom the promise of it is still new and precious.

Gasp. Wheeze. This looks like entropy: a closed system’s inevitable and steady winding down toward disorder and randomness. The key phrase here is “closed system.”

Maybe, just maybe, we have something to learn from outsiders. This is the startling premise, at any rate, behind the San Francisco-based human-rights group Global Exchange’s Fair Elections project — a plan to bring at least 28 independent monitors from around the globe to the United States this fall to observe our election and look for ways to make it more, well, democratic.

“There are too many things going on with the American electoral process not to do this,” project director Ted Lewis told me.

The 2000 election, with all its irregularities and bizarre irruptions — everything from widespread minority disenfranchisement to preposterous and confusing ballots (2 million spoiled) to the trumping of the national will by an anachronism called the Electoral College, occurring in an issue-lite, enervating context of money, sound bites and voter cynicism — was the manifestation of a system in crisis. Four years later, the system has shown little indication it’s capable of revitalizing itself.

“What can we learn?” Lewis said. “We can learn there are different ways to do elections and democracy.” For instance, Mexican election officials who visited California at the behest of Global Exchange in 2000 “were shocked there wasn’t an independent election authority in the U.S.”

Nor do U.S. citizens have a constitutionally guaranteed right to vote, Lewis noted. Most countries do — Iraq does. But not the United States. That means who gets to vote varies from state to state; in Maine and Vermont, prisoners can vote from their cells, but seven states, including Florida, do not automatically allow ex-felons to vote.

Thus some 4.7 million Americans, 2 percent of the electorate — and 13 percent of black males — are disenfranchised due to felony convictions, according to the Sentencing Project. Blacks are barred from voting at seven times the rate of other U.S. citizens.

The international monitors, 20 of whom will come to the U.S. in September (the other eight will be here over Election Day), are scheduled to visit Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio and Washington, D.C. They will investigate three controversies in particular: the overwhelming influence of money on the U.S. political process, the disenfranchisement of poor and minority voters, and security concerns about the new touch-screen voting machines.

“The folks who are coming have been involved in really creating democracies in modern times,” Lewis said. “They are people who have deep faith in democracy. Americans take it for granted.”

Democracy is an evolving concept, needing continually to adjust and refine its implementation. Maybe we’ve stopped evolving here. I do feel we’ve reduced the stakes of the game, giving voters, at best, quadrennial choices between the lesser of two evils. That disenfranchises everybody.