No Panaceas

Wednesday, November 05, 2003
If we can send a man to the moon...: Just about this time of the semester I usually go off on a rant in my AmGov class regarding how we run elections in this country. The lecture rant just happens to be scheduled tomorrow, which is good timing given that I voted yesterday so I am reminded of the problem.

Think of just about anything governments do in this country and they do them better than they run elections. We put more thought and money into our 4th of July celebrations than we put into running our elections. It's a bit of problem given that, you know, elections are the basis of a democracy.

It's not just that poor equipment design and maintenance disenfranchises voters. That's part of the problem, and it gets a lot of publicity because of the 2000 election, but it's just one component of the problem. Take for example the fact that we hold most of our elections on work days. Thus most voters have to find a way to get to the polls before, during, or after work.

Ahh, but just try finding and getting to a poll in this country. You'd think we'd want to put our polls in very prominent places, places that are easy to find and have plenty of parking and (in urban areas) access to mass transit. Places like shopping malls or stadiums. But where do we put most of polling places? At elementary schools or churches that only a few people have ever heard of, let alone been to, that invariably are located on some narrow, hard to get to side street.

But let's say you find the place. Now just try and park. It's a school, on a WEEKDAY, so the parking lot is full which means you have to park on the street, a real challenge in some neighborhoods. But, hey, the committed voter does what it takes. So after you park you walk to the school (If it's November then invariably it's 35 degrees and raining), dodge rampaging students (I thought they got rid of recess), and fend off the political activists (No, I don't care who the Mcgillicutty party endorsed for School Board).

After all that you stagger inside ready to...wait...wait in line. In this country most poll workers are senior citizens. Why? In large part because most elections are held on weekdays, so only people with very flexible weekday schedules can work the polls. Now, I have nothing against senior citizens. I hope to be one one day. But speaking from experience, running a poll is a surprisingly complicated and exhausting task. It's exacerbated by poor eyesight, etc.

By constitutional design the states run elections. But what really happens is, for the most part, states pawn the task off on county governments. The financial capacity of county governments varies dramatically, and even the richer counties have the incentive to cut corners when it comes to funding elections, since there are no natural constituencies agitating on the issue. So in most parts of the country our elections limp along, understaffed, in hard to find places, with outdated, poorly designed equipment.