This paper was first published in a french newspaper and translated by the website Truthout… 8 years ago. And most of the stuff I wrote at the time is *unfortunately* still relevant. The democracy still suffers from the lack of transparency, of uniformity of the electoral system. Thus the legitimacy of most elections, and particularly at the federal level, is weaken, while conspiracy theories, alleged frauds fuel the judiciarisation of the electoral process.
Elisabeth Vallet | A Real Democratic Deficit
A Real Democratic Deficit
Monday 18 October 2004
The American people are getting ready to go to the polls November 2 to designate their Electors, and, by so doing, their president… But also to elect officials, judges, sheriffs, prosecutors, and to respond to a number of referendums or local questions.
Colorado voters must also decide on the type of election that will apply to the designation of the state’s Electors. In fact, while the vast majority of American states apply the principle of winner-takes-all to this election, the amendment submitted to referendum this November 2 would allow Colorado to designate its Electors proportionally. And this modification would apply to the election underway. According to present polls, that would have the effect of distributing the nine electoral votes between Bush and Kerry. Which, in view of the results of the 2000 elections, could change the course of history…
The American political system responds to its founders’ two goals: one the one hand, to establish an accomplished democracy contrasting with the tyrannies they left behind in Europe (hence the great number of elected officials and the widely practiced procedure of popularly instigated referenda); on the other, to preserve the federal logic which brought the “united states” into being.
By analogy, the democratic deficit imputable to the American electoral system largely parallels the logic inferred from the new European Constitution: the designation of the future EU president by the European Council broadly corresponds to this federal philosophy. The United States of America were constituted in this same spirit, with each state accepting transfers of its sovereignty, without, all the same, consenting to abandon its sovereignty. In this respect, even today, there are as many similarities between the Texan and the New Hampshire judicial systems as between the English legal order and the Greek system. This diversity is always obscured by the fact that the United States speak with one voice: that of their president… But isn’t that the desired objective of the European member states?
The multiplicity of normative systems in the United States constitutes the heart of the 2004 election problem and is undoubtedly the basis for our incomprehension. But that’s the reality: there are as many electoral systems as there are states and just as many political and legal cultures. Now, since the organization of the election devolves on the federated states, and, because of the cost of elections and the high abstention rate, the states tend to concentrate several elections on the same day, hence the complexity of the lists and the 2000 election imbroglio.
The replacement of the outmoded voting machines in the highly contentious county of Palm Beach does not resolve the problem. On the one hand, because the new touch screen voting machines are subject to warrant. On the other, because the question of the 2000 elections in fact goes well beyond Florida: the cities of New York and Chicago alone saw more ballots unduly invalidated than the whole state of Florida. Several reports (like that of the League of Women Voters) inventory abusive purges of voter rolls and cases of intimidation. Is American democracy in danger? Or, to repeat Georgetown University professor Stephen Wayne, “Is this a way to run a democratic election?”
This much-asked question deserves a nuanced answer. American democracy is certainly surprising. Partisan alignment and the convergence of electoral platforms sometimes mask other political dividing lines. Accordingly, the Electoral College is the object of recurrent controversy. Some flog a centuries’ old, outmoded institution, disconnected from social realities. They emphasize that, contrary to the myth, all the Electors do not have an required mandate, since, once again, the nature of the electors’ mandate is determined at the federated level (only 27 states impose voting in conformity with their initial allegiance on the 270 Electors).
Others raise the Electoral College’s lack of constitutionality. In fact, the term does not figure in American founding law: the Electors represent their state first, meet state by state to elect the president, and transmit their results to Congress, which scrutinizes them. Consequently, this universal suffrage aggregated state by state, according real space for small, less populous states, would represent the essence of American democracy, founded on moderation, consensus, and bipartisanship.
The debate persists. And this method of designating the chief executive will be put to the test again during the upcoming election in November, which is forecast to be very tight. If the American electoral system effects a compromise between democratic logic and federal logic, the fact remains that it is the source of a real democratic deficit. Has the American federal model outlasted its term? Europe is constructing a similar system… In certain European states, minorities have problems attaining the vote, voters vote in constituencies where they no longer live, and sometimes even the dead cast a vote… What’s the difference? We don’t elect a European president… At least, not yet, and with infinitely lesser power!
Elisabeth Vallet is a Doctor of law, researcher for the Raoul-Dandurand Chair in Strategic and International Studies at Quebec University in Montreal. She has just published as coauthor Les lections pr sidentielles am ricaines [The American Presidential Elections] with Quebec University Press.
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