9 Back to Black

Joanne Black

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - JOANNE BLACK

For a coun­try that talks a big game about democ­racy, the US is not very good at it. Nowhere near as good as it is at, say, base­ball. It is very good at base­ball. Elec­tions? Not so much.

Most im­por­tantly, it is not par­tic­u­larly strong on the fun­da­men­tal demo­cratic con­cept of one per­son, one vote. It sounds sim­ple and, to be fair, when a voter is white the sys­tem works pretty well. How­ever, when vot­ers are not white, the one per­son, one vote con­cept re­mains great in prin­ci­ple but be­comes hazy in prac­tice.

In the midterm elec­tions this month, Florida passed a law that in fu­ture will al­low felons to vote once they have com­pleted their sen­tences, in­stead of be­ing banned from vot­ing for life. This is re­ported to po­ten­tially add an ex­tra mil­lion vot­ers to Florida’s reg­is­ter, in­clud­ing 40% of the state’s African Amer­i­can men. Such sta­tis­tics ex­plain why elec­toral re­form is so con­tentious. Many Repub­li­cans see no par­tic­u­lar need to add a mil­lion vot­ers who might be ex­pected to lean to­wards the Democrats in a state of about eight mil­lion vot­ers whose sup­port is cur­rently evenly di­vided be­tween the two par­ties.

States have var­i­ous ways to make it dif­fi­cult for all but the com­mit­ted to vote. Ab­sen­tee vot­ing is rule-bound in some states, nig­gly ID re­quire­ments op­er­ate in oth­ers, bound­aries ev­ery­where are fought over like seag­ulls af­ter hot chips and in many states, voter reg­is­tra­tion rolls are reg­u­larly purged – in­clud­ing re­mov­ing those who have not re­cently voted. Get­ting re-reg­is­tered, if you even know you have been purged, is one more hur­dle on the steeple­chase of Amer­i­can elec­tions. As an aside, this month’s midterms, in which the Democrats won con­trol of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Repub­li­cans, saw an es­ti­mated turnout of 47% of eli­gi­ble vot­ers, the high­est since 1966, when 49% of vot­ers cast a bal­lot.

The sec­ond most ob­vi­ous weak­ness of the me­chan­ics of US democ­racy is count­ing the bal­lots. Re­counts are re­quired for Florida’s se­na­tor, gov­er­nor and – be­cause this is Amer­ica, why not have an elec­tion for a job that could in­stead be non-po­lit­i­cal? – agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner. All three races were so close on elec­tion night that they were eli­gi­ble for re­counts.

But that sit­u­a­tion sim­ply pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity for the US to demon­strate some­thing in which it truly ex­cels – lit­i­ga­tion. There are al­ready more law­suits in Florida re­lat­ing to the midterms than there are re­counts. Re­counts are sup­posed to be quick. Lit­i­ga­tion never is. I can see why Amer­i­cans like the clar­ity of base­ball.

Last week­end, my hus­band, daugh­ter and I went to Chicago. We were away only a night so I booked us the cheap­est air­fares that stip­u­lated no carry-on lug­gage other than a small bag you could put un­der the seat in front of you. Fine. On board­ing Amer­i­can planes, I im­me­di­ately have to put my head down and read so as not to start hy­per­ven­ti­lat­ing as I watch pas­sen­gers strug­gle to wedge their re­frig­er­a­tors and sin­gle beds in the over­head lock­ers. On check­ing in, the air­line asked if I wanted to change my mind and pay a fee for over­head bag­gage space. I did not.

But wait. It also asked if I wanted to pay a sep­a­rate ad­di­tional fee to “get Zone 2 board­ing and early ac­cess to the over­head bins”. So you can pay not only to use the bins, but also more to use them first. They are as pre­cious as Auck­land real es­tate. Oh, I had to take my shoes off, too, for se­cu­rity screen­ing.

I have vowed that my next do­mes­tic trip will be by car.

Vot­ing-dis­trict bound­aries are fought over like seag­ulls af­ter hot chips.

“I’m not sure whether I’m a craft beer ex­pertor an overly ar­tic­u­late prob­lem drinker.”

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