Methods of Counting (part one)

The United States of America is a democratic republic, or so goes the story. A republic, because citizens elect their representatives; a democracy, because most people are citizens and have the right to vote. This is different from a direct democracy such as ancient Athens, where citizenship meant you were part of the government, but citizenship was reserved to just a few thousand inhabitants (property-owning adult males, in other words). So American elections are simple, routine: people cast their ballots, the votes are counted, and the will of the people prevails.

Well — that’s how it’s supposed to go. There’s a lot that goes on in that middle step. But how hard could it be? Count up the votes for Candidate A or Candidate B, tally all the ballots for Proposition X, and so forth. It’s basic math!

Well, sometimes there’s simple fraud or malfeasance. We’ve come a long way from the days of Tammany Hall or Boss Tweed, in the classic days of “vote early and vote often,” where the political bosses would see to it that their constituents had rides from polling place to polling place, and plenty of liquor too. Admittedly the bosses rewarded loyalty and oftentimes “represented” minorities and immigrants who would have no other voice, but these tactics were still illegal as sin and it’s good that we’ve done away with them.

These tactics died hard, though, and they’ve swayed the fate of the nation within living memory. There’s the famous case of John F. Kennedy winning Illinois by just 9,000 votes — with fifty times that many Democratic ballots coming from Daley-controlled Chicago. This may not have actually tipped the scales in that extraordinarily close election, but another related political career was launched by means that are now pretty obviously fraudulent: Lyndon Johnson won a US Senate seat for the first time after prevailing in a primary election by just eighty-seven votes, two hundred of which were cast in exact alphabetical order. (A photograph shows Johnson’s campaign team posing with a ballot box and grinning from ear to ear.) In short, two hundred assuredly-false ballots eventually led to an LBJ presidency.

This and innumerable other occasions has given rise to a saying: “Those who vote decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.” It’s attributed to Josef Stalin, who may not have said it; but even if he didn’t, he certainly would have agreed with it. Boss Tweed definitely did.

This kind of outright theft of elections, however, is now rather less common, in part because of extremely rigorous investigations by the Justice Department. Justice has been hunting for vote-fraud cases with all its might and main for decades, and while there are always a few, in recent years it has been just a few. Almost negligible, in fact. Fewer than a hundred cases in ten years, I’m told. Our elections are the model of the world — at least in terms of actual citizens casting actual ballots, one each, and the ballots cast being counted fairly.

But there are other methods of counting.

How about an old classic? Gerrymandering has an impeccable pedigree in the US; Elbridge Gerry created the original gerrymander in 1812, making the practice only a few years younger than the country itself. Gerry helped usher the country in — he signed the Declaration of Independence, and refused to sign the Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights. Gerry’s method was simple: he redrew the boundaries of the legislative districts, putting almost all his political enemies in one district and leaving all the others to his allies. The same method is still used to this day, with variants. Sometimes the idea is to break up a solid voting bloc, parcel it out to several hostile districts, and thereby drown the bloc in a sea of opposition. Sometimes it’s targeted even more specifically: Ohio is redistricting this year, and the district that’s been eliminated is of course that of ultra-liberal Dennis Kucinich, who’s defeated everything else the Republican Party has thrown at him. Unable to beat him in an election, the Ohio GOP controlling the redistricting was perfectly happy to make sure there wasn’t an election.

But the usual objective of gerrymandering is to guarantee secure seats. My Congressional district, encompassing the city of Seattle, is not terribly gerrymandered — at least there is no corkscrew district boundary, unlike some others. It is geographically the smallest in the state, but in terms of number of people (which is what really matters) it is fairly apportioned. However it is an extremely solid Democratic district. It’s only ever elected a Republican twice, and the incumbent Jim McDermott has been here since 1989. As he routinely lands huge margins of victory, he’s not going anywhere except by his own choosing — or perhaps feet first.

This means that the twenty percent of the district that doesn’t vote for Congressman McDermott is, in essence, denied its vote. Any Republican running against McDermott will lose; even if he were caught in the act of murdering a prostitute while high on heroin, the Democrats would probably keep the seat. The only way Republicans in this district can cast meaningful votes for Congress is with their feet — by leaving the district. Turnabout is fair play, of course; I grew up in Jennifer Dunn’s Republican stronghold, and so the first votes I cast for Congress were just as futile. Truth be told, though, my votes for McDermott are a bit wasted, too. He’d win even if half his supporters forget to vote, so he doesn’t need my ballot at all. (No joke. In 2010, a strong Republican year, McDermott beat his opponent 83% to 17%.) And while he almost always votes exactly the way I want him to, he would no matter what I say or do.

In other words, I’ve cast five votes for Congress, and the only time I ever made a difference was when I loaded up my car with my possessions, crossed Lake Washington and the district line, and moved to Seattle. When a district is so solidly held by one party it will never be contested, when the only meaningful ballots are cast by feet, that’s gerrymandering.

Of course I never stop voting, just in case. But on the aggregate, Congressional elections in Seattle are foregone conclusions. In other parts of the country, the districts are frequently so solid for one party or another that incumbents run unopposed. And why not? In 2010, a tight election, most Congressional contests in Washington State were won by just a few percentage points, but every single incumbent won. The only actual fights were where the incumbents had retired. Incumbency is so powerful in elections that when up against a solid district and a solid office-holder, the opposition party often doesn’t even bother.

So gerrymandering is real, and powerful — one of the most powerful political forces there is, apparently, for all that it goes little-noticed. The majority of Americans, if they choose to be represented by another party, will have to move. I find that less than democratic.

There are still further underhanded methods of counting. One is voter suppression, where the rules on voting make it harder to vote. Requiring photo IDs, for instance. The most common form of government-issued photo identification, bar none, is the driver’s license. In large cities with good public transit, where people have less need of such a license, a photo-ID requirement suddenly starts ruling out a lot of people who are citizens. Yes, it these new requirements weed out those trying to revive the “vote early and vote often” tactics of a bygone age, but I will guarantee you that they hit far more legitimate voters than vote-stealers — millions compared to dozens.

Vote-stealing has to be done on a large scale or it simply is irrelevant, meaning it is pointless when done by individuals. It can only be accomplished by an organization (which could probably provide fake IDs anyway — after all, if teens can get them, crooks can), or by people counting the ballots. Both would leave tracks and both would be pounced on by a Justice Department champing at the bit for voter-fraud cases.

Simply denying people their ballots in the absence of photo ID, however, is becoming more common. Wisconsin is the poster child in this case, where rules put into place by Governor Scott Walker require photo identification and make it rather hard to get said ID. Seniors, students, and minorities were particularly hard-hit by the new rules, which for instance did not accept existing student IDs as valid. Everyone could get new state-issued IDs, of course… if they presented enough information. One elderly citizen of Wisconsin, Genevieve Winslow, presented no fewer than five forms of identification, but because she had changed her name (prior to 1948) her birth certificate did not match, and she was turned away un-IDed. She was perhaps fortunate to get to the office at all: Gov. Walker instituted these requirements while simultaneously shutting down ten of the offices charged with issuing the IDs, with some accusation that he specifically targeted offices in Democratic-leaning districts.

Moreover the Wisconsin Department of Transportation was explicitly ordered by a high-ranking DOT official to NOT inform people that the cards were free, if requested specifically for voting purposes. In other words, if citizens came and realized they couldn’t afford $28 or didn’t have it with them, the DOT personnel were under orders to let them go away empty-handed rather than simply tell them that there was no charge.

It’s also worth noting that people who have no birth certificates would be seriously challenged by these ID laws — and still further, people whose identities do not match their birth certificates, such as transgender people, would also be denied their ballot. Over forty percent of transgender citizens don’t have ID that reflect right gender (i.e., the gender they prefer and present). In other words, for those people in the new picture-ID states, they might have to either give up their vote, or lie, by presenting themselves in their prior gender.

Another rather blatant example of these new identification laws is the new Texas voting law which rules out using student ID cards but does permit concealed-carry gun permits for voter identification. The logic is probably that the state is more rigorous in ascertaining that people applying for gun permits are indeed who they say they are. It makes sense, but the fact that college students are usually more liberal than most Texans with concealed-carry permits cannot have escaped the minds of the law’s writers.


Part One has mostly focused on small-scale issues, denying citizens the vote on a small scale or making their vote ineffective. The next post will address rather more large-scale problems, including the latest news out of Michigan.


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