American democracy is the finest system of government in the world. But if there is anything that we have learned in the last 12 years, it is that it has one terrible weakness: close elections. The Bush v. Gore Florida fiasco set the tone for a legal arms race in which two major parties have demonstrated that they have one thing above all in common: they bitterly distrust each other. The escalation of this process in the current election cycle has reached levels few dreamed of not that long ago, as both Republicans and Democrats now take it as an article of faith that their opponents’ goal is steal the election.
As the New York Times reports this morning, it is entirely possible that lawyers will outnumber election officials at many polling places. None of this will matter much if either President Obama or Mitt Romney wins easily on Tuesday. But with the polls tightening up even further this week — and today’s Rasmussen poll showing the race tied after Romney had led in that measure for many days has to discourage any GOP activists who were entertaining visions of a Mitt cakewalk — the odds are the vote will be close and the outcome in some of the battleground states may trigger bad memories of Florida’s hanging chads.
But the problem here is more than just the natural distrust between the parties and a willingness to see any close loss as the result of dirty tricks. Conservative efforts to monitor vote fraud have come in for heavy criticism from the media as thinly veiled attempts to suppress the votes of minorities inclined to vote for the Democrats. In particular, the True the Vote group has been lambasted as nothing more than organized vote suppression. Yet the problem with that assumption is the evidence that Democrats are doing more than cutting corners when it comes to preparing for the large turnout they need on Election Day to re-elect President Obama. As the Times notes:
Still, the Republicans have had legitimate complaints, election officials say. Groups associated with the Democrats have sometimes been overly aggressive in voter registration, paying people for each voter registered or offering bonuses for larger numbers of registrations. This has led to fraud. Ms. Platten, the Democratic county elections board director, said she had seen multiple registrations for the same person whose Social Security number had been shifted by one digit.
If this is a common practice in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, does anyone think these Cleveland Democrats are doing something that their counterparts in Philadelphia or any of a number of other places haven’t thought of too?
Liberals have spent most of the last year endlessly telling us that there is no such thing as voter fraud in the United States and that Republicans who pushed for voter ID laws were racists. But the reality of election cheating is something to keep in mind next week when you hear about lawyers in Ohio petitioning courts to keep polls open late in Democratic districts after similarly pushing to allow those areas more early voting opportunities than other parts of the state.
It should be taken as a given that both sides will be ready to muddy the waters with legal challenges in any state where the vote is close. With 11 states rated as tossups on the Real Clear Politics Electoral College Map (less than 5 percent aggregate lead for either candidate in the polls) that leaves open the possibility that not only will we lack a clear outcome next week, but that the election could be mired in the courts next month.
No matter who ultimately wins the presidency, there are some conclusions that both sides, as well as those not immersed in partisanship, should draw from this impending mess.
One is that vote fraud is a serious issue. The impulse to vote the graveyards as well as to falsify the ballots of the living is an old American tradition. Those who ask us to believe that it is either rare or nonexistent are more or less demanding that we ignore everything we know about American political history as well as human nature. These partisan disputes could be minimized if more states adopted laws that made it harder to cheat as well as to ensure that the person showing up at the voting booth is the same one registered. Democrats who resist these laws are opening themselves up to justified suspicion that their true aim is to make it easier for their party to game the results.
Another is that states should devote greater efforts to promoting legal voter registration. So long as this remains largely the preserve of the parties, the Ohio example, in which one Social Security number is used to create a number of fictitious or illegal voters, will remain the rule rather than the exception. Worry about suppression of minority voters could also be alleviated.
Third, the ability of parties to control the election process through rules in some localities must be abolished. The city of Philadelphia’s system, which allows an open partisan to run the Elections Commission — something that makes it easier for Democrats there to act with impunity every Election Day and makes Republicans in the rest of the state suspect their opponents can come up with whatever numbers they need to win — helped motivate the passage of a voter ID law even though courts have ensured it won’t be enforced.
We will never overcome the distrust of the parties for each other, and close elections are always going to produce anger and lawsuits, as well as undermine the legitimacy of the process. But if more states adopted reasonable laws aimed at curbing fraud, it will be easier to minimize the damage the next time the system cracks up.