DURHAM, N.C. — Perhaps never before in our nation's history has there been such a loud, bipartisan chorus singing the praises of "the right to vote." Since election day, politicians and pundits from all points on the ideological spectrum have weighed in on the splendor and sanctity of our democratic right to choose our leaders.
President Bill Clinton got into the act early, pointing out that voting was our most "fundamental right," a view soon echoed by the Florida Supreme Court. Al Gore and Joseph I. Lieberman frequently--and piously--remind us that the right to vote includes the right to have our votes counted. Bob Dole has pointed out the injustice of depriving soldiers of the franchise for want of a postmark; other Republicans denounce the prospect of disfranchising absentee voters just because they filled their forms out wrong. Jesse Jackson has invoked the specter of the South's sordid history of racial disfranchisement. Each of the hundreds of lawyers traversing Florida's courtrooms has a solemn paragraph (sometimes it seems like the same paragraph) about the need to protect our "sacred" right to vote.
Yet, despite the rhetoric, the events of the last month have left most of us feeling that our right to vote is far less sacred and less protected than we believed it to be. As many observers have noted, the never-ending presidential election has been a national civics lesson, informing Americans about the inner workings of our political processes: One radio host told me that, "Now most people at least know what conference the electoral college plays in." But the lesson has also been a disillusioning one, stripping a veil of innocence from our eyes.
Here are some of the lessons we have learned about presidential elections:
* If you registered to vote, your name may or may not be on registration lists when you arrive at the polls. Registration lists are periodically "scrubbed," and mistakes happen. Forms filed at the Department of Motor Vehicles may not have made it to the voter registration office. If your name is not listed at the polling place, you may or may not find a helpful elections official who will call headquarters and listen to a busy signal for two days.
* If there is some problem with your paperwork when you apply for an absentee ballot, you will be notified of that problem if you are a registered Republican or Democrat and if your party's functionaries are in cahoots with the registrar. Otherwise, forget it.
* If you vote, your vote will probably be counted, but maybe not. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of ballots will be tossed because of improper marks or machine malfunctions: Only in a few places will you be told, at the polls, that your ballot has been rejected. If you took advantage of newly liberal laws and filed an absentee ballot, your vote may never be counted at all. If you live in North Carolina (and likely in other states, as well) and vote for an "unofficial" write-in candidate like Ralph Nader, your ballot will be destroyed without being counted.
* If you are African American, at least in the South, you are more likely to encounter any and all of these logistical problems. Your precincts will be more likely to have ancient voting machines, be understaffed and have fewer phone lines to headquarters; you may be asked for additional identification.
* If you live in a populous state like New York or California, your vote does not carry as much weight as the votes of individuals from South Dakota and Delaware. A single electoral vote represents more than half-a-million people in California but only 220,000 in the smallest states.
* Since the electoral college determines the victor, your vote will not matter at all, unless the popular vote in your state happens to be extremely close. In presidential elections, the person with the most votes doesn't necessarily win.
* If, for whatever reason, you are deprived of the right to vote (and have your vote counted), you can trust that a political party will come to your aid if its leaders are convinced that they will benefit by having you re-enfranchised. In such an event, the other major party will strenuously oppose your re-enfranchisement because the mistake was yours, you can't prove otherwise, the letter of the law must be followed, and it's too late to count your vote anyway. The two major parties believe deeply in the right to vote of their own supporters.
These are not heartening lessons, and, taken together, they seem likely to overwhelm the happier thought that election 2000 will increase future turnout because everyone now knows that every vote counts. The spectacle of the last month suggests, indeed, that many votes don't count and that our entire electoral machinery is not only antiquated but the prisoner of political parties that have little respect for the "sacred" rights of voters.