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The Votes We Traded to Get 'Clean' Machines

November 29, 2000|MAX PAGE | Max Page is a professor of history at Yale University

How is it that Florida could routinely throw out the ballots of tens of thousands of people each presidential election and that the nation as a whole tosses out many times that? Why do we hear so little outrage about this? Why have we come to accept blithely the discarding of the honest votes of so many people?

The easy--and wrong--answer is that we have become politically apathetic over the past quarter century: We stopped voting, we stopped paying any real attention, we stopped caring. The real answer is much more disturbing: Not only does the country accept this disposal of votes, but in an unspoken way, we find it necessary; indeed, we find it comforting. By throwing out ballots that seem to be in any way tainted--whether tampered with or simply unreadable--we are able to believe that the system is clean, that the counted ballots are accurate and offered by citizens who knew what they are doing. The measure of the health of our elections is in part justified by the disposal of "unfit" ballots.

The roots of this attitude lie in the Progressive Era at the beginning of the 20th century, when the quest to eliminate fraud from elections prompted new measures to eliminate the fact and appearance of "irregularities." One of the lasting legacies of that era of reforms was to transform the process of electing our representatives. Generations of students have learned how Progressive reformers "cleaned up" politics with the "secret ballot" (replacing ballot sheets printed by each party and given to loyal voters), registration and identification laws and residency requirements.

There was, however, a broader purpose to these apparently healthy reforms. In the face of a huge influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe in the North and the eager movement of freed slaves in the South into the electorate, fearful upper-class reformers sought to turn voting into a privilege of educated citizens. A clue here is that many of the most "modern" political reforms got their start in the Deep South. The new century brought literacy tests, poll taxes and property qualifications, all expressly designed to remove blacks from the voting rolls. It was no accident that those rules eliminated poor whites as well. The greatest fear of Southern leaders was that freed slaves and poor whites would unite, as they tentatively had begun to at the end of the 19th century.

But efforts to remove "dangerous elements" from the voting rolls were far-reaching in the North as well. Immigrants who had not become citizens, for example, who had long been allowed to vote in many states, had this right revoked in state after state in the years leading up to World War I, even as progressives put new impediments to citizenship.

Historians continue to argue about success of the Progressive Era. But in eliminating voters, reformers succeeded terrifically. Blacks in the South were almost completely eliminated from the democratic process, as were hundreds of thousands of poor whites in the South and North.

We all decry the low rate of turnout for elections and blame the apathy of our children or the blandness of the candidates. But the rapid decline in voting percentages began in the 1890s, just as Southerners began to disenfranchise blacks and Northern progressives set about "improving" elections. In other words, the effort to "clean up" elections--and often to exclude legitimate voters--had the direct effect of weakening our democracy, even as the "cleaners" boasted of strengthening it.

Republicans are the inheritors of this tradition. They are skillfully manipulating the baseless fear of corrupt party hacks "stealing" the election by "inventing" votes during the hand recounts. And they are making not-so-subtle attacks on "stupid" voters (read: blacks in Miami-Dade and elderly Jews in Palm Beach County) who in their failure to navigate confusing ballots "deserve" to have their votes taken away. On the other hand are the calm but disturbing words of Gore's lawyer David Boies, reminding us that there are thousands of votes that have never been counted even once. The result is that the one sacred part of this whole pathetic contest between look-alike candidates--the actual vote of citizens in our democracy--has been defiled.

Long ago, reformers made a fateful trade-off that has come to be accepted in the wider culture. While the most onerous of restrictions on voting have been overturned, the more general attitude toward voting persists in Florida and in the nation: In exchange for the mere appearance of a clean, machine-counted vote, we have sacrificed the honest votes of thousands and the participation of millions.

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