Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Today's voters have it easy

Whoever comes out on top in today's political popularity contest, we're bound to endure days if not weeks of allegations about voter fraud, voter intimidation and the "corrupting" influence of money on elections. Some of these concerns are real. From ACORN's very interesting take on voter registration to fliers urging Democrats to vote on November 5, this has been a year for shenanigans that could potentially influence the outcome of the election.

On the other hand, some of these concerns are nonsense. As former FEC Chairman Bradley Smith points out, the $2.5 billion expended on the presidential race this year isn't that large a sum for a nation this size.

"Americans will spend about $12 billion on potato chips this year; Coca Cola will spend more on advertising this year than will be spent by all the candidates who have run for president. It costs money to communicate, whether you are talking about cars, cola or politicians."

But realizing that $2.5 billion isn't all that much to spend to determine which ambitious demagogue gets an opportunity to mess with us requires a bit of perspective. That's something lacking in a nation notorious for forgetting its history.

A little historical knowledge would reveal, for instance, that big campaign budgets and long lists of donors are nothing compared to the outright vote buying that prevailed in the 19th Century, when color-coded ballots printed by the parties themselves made it easy for partisan enforcers to make sure that voters who'd accepted a coin or a lunch as payment for loyalty voted "the right way." It was a well-respected practice. Even pre-revolutionary George Washington greased his way into the Virginia House of Burgesses on votes lubricated with liquor.

And a little more historical perspective would make today's padding and trimming of voter-registration lists look like weak tea compared to the gauntlet voters had to run in some places in the past. From a fascinating article in The New Yorker:

Kyle was a Democrat. As he neared the polls in the city’s Fifteenth Ward, which was heavily dominated by the American Party, a ruffian tried to snatch his ballots. Kyle dodged and wheeled, and heard a cry: his brother, just behind him, had been struck. Next, someone clobbered Kyle, who drew a knife, but didn’t have a chance to use it. “I felt a pistol put to my head,” he said. Grazed by a bullet, he fell. When he rose, he drew his own pistol, hidden in his pocket. He spied his brother lying in the street. Someone else fired a shot, hitting Kyle in the arm. A man carrying a musket rushed at him. Another threw a brick, knocking him off his feet. George Kyle picked himself up and ran. He never did cast his vote. Nor did his brother, who died of his wounds.

Granted, that was rough even for Baltimore of 1859, but upon reviewing the election, the House of Representatives accepted the results, concluding the day's occurrences were no bar to voting for any “man of ordinary courage.”

I'll admit that I often get the feeling our ancestors were a lot tougher than we could ever hope to be.

None of this is too suggest that we ignore today's less exciting but no less subversive efforts to throw elections one way or another by corrupting the electoral process. But it's pretty clear that the path to the ballot box -- which these days might be a mail-in ballot perused at leisure on the sofa -- is a bit cushier than it has been in the past, and that the inducements to vote one way or another are much less overt.

Voting has never before been so easy or so safe.

And with voting so unchallenging, in historical terms, it's hard to take seriously the claims of the goo-goos that casting a ballot is just too difficult, and that's why voter turnout is so low.

Really? In the year George Kyle's brother died trying to cast a vote, turnout was around 80%. If it's lower now, difficulty isn't the issue.

So sure, address the real issues of voter fraud and voter suppression we have today. But don't make too much of a few speedbumps in a process that's an awful lot easier and cleaner than it was once upon a time.



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