Jan 1 2002

Covering the Horserace, Not the Track

The press shortchanges electoral reform

In November 2000, thousands of journalists and the attention of the nation converged on Florida during the chaotic ballot recount to decide the presidential election. The horserace had come to a photo finish, and every element of that fuzzy snapshot was scrutinized, including the muddy track on which the race was run.

Of course Florida’s problems with voting were nothing new, and some states had even worse conditions. A study by MIT and Caltech, in fact, estimated that as many as 6 million Americans did not cast votes in the presidential race in 2000 because of faulty machines and registration procedures that have been with us for decades (Christian Science Monitor, 7/17/01). Millions more cast valid votes but, because of low rates of English literacy, physical disabilities or simply inadequate voter education, were unable to vote as effectively as they could have if provided with modern equipment and procedures. And due to our antiquated winner-take-all electoral system, which has been rejected by most modern democracies, many more votes were “wasted” on third party candidates and non-competitive major party candidates.

Electoral rules and procedures could be so poor for so long only because American elections aren’t as important as they should be: Our choices are too limited, votes too weak and political accountability too divided. But rather than explore that harsh reality, most journalists focus on the horserace. Before the Florida controversy, only a few poorly paid pollworkers and electoral system junkies knew just how out of date our democracy had become. Martin Menzer and the staff of the Miami Herald made the point well in their 2001 book Democracy Held Hostage: “Few Americans knew it, but most of their electoral systems were designed to accommodate voter apathy rather than voter enthusiasm. These systems were based on the premise that turnout would always be low, margins of difference would always be high and the exact vote count would never really matter.”

Consistent with their horserace approach to covering politics, many journalists simply moved to fresher controversies once the Supreme Court named a winner in Florida. The major media, particularly the Washington Post and New York Times, have since then poorly served the public interest by initially narrowing the scope of debate over potential reform, then undercutting even these limited reform efforts.

Because the American people want their democracy to be the best in the world, revelations about confusing “butterfly ballots,” archaic punch-card equipment, chaotic lines at the polls, voter registration snafus and arbitrary decisions by partisans masquerading as neutral election administrators spurred overwhelming support for strong national ballot standards. A Washington Post poll (12/18/00), for example, found huge majorities for federal voting rules for all states and counties, and for requiring all states to use one kind of voting machine.

These views reflect most Americans’ belief in voter equality. Consistent with that view is ongoing support for electing the president directly rather than by the Electoral College (e.g., Washington Post, 12/18/00), which treats voters unequally and violates majority rule in a way not permitted in any other presidential election in the democratic world. Without the controversy in Florida, Election 2000 indeed might have drawn much more attention to one unambiguous fact about the election: Al Gore beat George Bush nationally by more than a half-million votes, but still lost.

Narrowing options

But accepting and reflecting conventional wisdom, the New York Times and Washington Post were quick to steer debate away from “radical” suggestions such as instant runoff voting (where voters indicate a second or third choice to ensure that the winner has majority support), or a direct election based on one person, one vote. In the face of shockingly low voter turnout, a Senate lacking a single African-American or Latino, and largely noncompetitive legislative races, the Times’ lead editorial on December 3, 2000 opined: “Any wise observer—domestic, foreign or interplanetary—has to conclude that Americans’ final verdict will be that theirs is a country in need of new voting machines, not a new electoral system.”

The Times also editorialized (12/19/00) for keeping the Electoral College, saying that it “required presidential candidates to build alliances across ideological and geographical lines.” In fact, as the famous red/blue electoral maps of the 2000 election suggest, the state-by-state winner-take-all system allows candidates to write off ideologically unfriendly regions of the country, limiting real electoral competition to a handful of “swing” states.

The Washington Post also remained deferential to our electoral rules. The day after the election (11/8/00), it maintained that “the system has been working for 200 years; it is the envy of much of the world, and with good cause.” It argued that “Naderites” were wrong to argue that the system offered no real choice, as the blurring of differences is “useful” in a nation as diverse as the United States and did not change the fact that there were some differences. It even argued that critics were wrong to argue that the Electoral College makes all but a few battleground states irrelevant, without offering another explanation for why candidates had focused their campaigning nearly exclusively on fewer than 15 states.

In a post-election editorial (11/9/00), the Post chided Green candidate Ralph Nader as a “spoiler,” without mentioning how most nations use runoffs (or instant-runoff voting) to avoid putting third party candidates in that position. In another editorial the same day, the paper warned the major-party campaigns against suggesting that a loss in the popular vote would in any way “taint” an Electoral College victory.

Derailing reform

Ably assisted by election officials more interested in reform as a political issue than in seriously changing the rules that elected them, the media by January 2001 had largely narrowed the reform debate to how to modernize voting mechanics within states. With nearly three times as many votes rejected in heavily black precincts in Florida as in heavily white ones, such changes were certainly warranted.

The visceral reaction against the antiquated practices exposed in Florida led to bipartisan support on Capitol Hill—including a bill that drew the support of 70 senators—for billions of dollars to ensure states modernized their voting processes. But Congress, states and nonprofits had much to learn about an issue that demanded more complex solutions than simply mass-ordering the latest voting equipment, so legislation did not pass quickly.

Even as progress was being made, the news divisions of the Washington Post and New York Times did a one-two sucker punch of front-page news stories that did permanent damage to reform. First, on April 21, the star of the Post’s political team, David Broder, wrote a story headlined “Electoral Reform, a Hit Last Fall, Goes Amiss.” “Four months after the presidential contest ended with calls for fundamental changes to the electoral system,” Broder wrote, “almost no remedial laws have been enacted and the sense among election administrators is that the opportunity for significant improvements may have been lost.” A chief course for Broder was Doug Lewis, director of an organization of election administrators with a general view that little was broken that Congress should fix.

Five days later (4/26/01), the New York Times’ Katharine Seelye followed with a similar story headlined “Little Change Forecast for Election Process.” Both articles exaggerated reformers’ hurdles and became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Zoe Hudson, director of the electoral reform initiative of Georgetown University’s Constitution Project, said that “those early articles set a pessimistic tone that’s been hard to turn around. In April, after all, Congress had yet to act on nearly any issue, let alone one as new as election reform. It’s been hard to get the press to focus on how much consensus has developed on substantive matters.”

Bush’s free ride

At the same time, George W. Bush has had a largely free ride on why his administration has been so silent on electoral reform. It was not until a July ceremony at the White House with former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter that Bush even spoke publicly about reform, expressing cautious support for the former presidents’ recommendations that mostly reflected the path of least resistance. Bush’s controversial victory, shrouded in uncertainty of primitive electoral rules and mechanics, gave journalists every reason to ask whether he meant to press for improvements. Apparently unwilling to be judged as even subtly questioning his legitimacy, however, the White House press corps has not asked for his views even as prospects for reform have teetered uncertainly in Congress.

Editorially, the Post and the Times this year have periodically chimed in for reform with editorials that, while ignoring substantial areas of reform, did at least make strong calls for modernizing voting mechanics. Their main flaws were in timing and urgency. Both pages were silent on electoral reform between Labor Day and the November 2001 elections, during perhaps the most critical period of congressional activity on the issue. When re-entering the debate, they failed to express the urgency demanded by those 6 million lost votes and the chance to enact substantial reforms in time for the 2002 elections. The Times also failed to connect the federal debate with problems in the 2001 New York City mayoral elections, which once again took place on ancient lever equipment that in 2000 led to one in 25 New Yorkers at the polls failing to register a vote for president.

Some might say that the resiliency of U.S. democracy has been proven by how it absorbed the body blow of the 2000 election fiasco. The greater truth is that lack of action on even the most obvious mechanical flaws—let alone debate on the more significant democratic failings—has revealed that we often remain more concerned about democratic elections in other nations that at home.