In the end, Bush won a clear majority of the popular vote and there was not a repeat of the disputed outcome of the 2000 election. However, this does not mean that American democracy has been "fixed" since the Florida debacle four years ago. Recall that in that election, Gore won the national popular vote and only lost because the Supreme Court refused to allow a full recount of the Florida vote. Many independent observers are convinced that a recount would have given Gore the victory but Florida’s governor Jeb Bush and an army of Republican lawyers were determined to stop this happening. In the end, Bush took office as a result of a "cold coup".
But as Michael Moore and others have pointed out, the 2000 election was stolen in Florida even before voters got to the polls and had to contend with "butterfly ballots" and "hanging chads". This was because of a systematic purging of the voter roles of ex-felons, overwhelmingly African Americans, many of whom turned out not to be ex-felons at all.
The targeting of African Americans in Florida by the notorious Secretary of State Katherine Harris was of course because they were far more likely to vote Democrat. But as Greg Palast, the investigative journalist and author of ‘The Best Democracy Money Can Buy’ points out, Florida 2000 was not some awful aberration of the system.
In every election in this country there are a significant number of "spoiled" votes. Typically in a national election some 2 million votes are spoiled. Most of this is not due to voter error but is the result of faulty voting machines, especially those using punch cards. Such machines are concentrated in poor areas and the US Civil Rights Commission and the Harvard Law School Civil Rights Project estimate that 54% of "spoiled" ballots are cast by African Americans.
This year there were numerous reports of attempts to purge the voter rolls including in Florida. Florida and Ohio Republicans also came up with "hit lists" of voters, of course mainly black, whom they would seek to "challenge", i.e. intimidate, at polling stations. On top of this large numbers of voter registration applications were summarily rejected in "battleground states" for minor inaccuracies. Again black and Hispanic voters were mostly affected.
Palast contends that the exit polls in Ohio did not lie; Kerry should have won. Between the roughly 200,000 provisional ballots resulting from challenges and the "spoilage" factor there were enough votes to defeat Bush. Since the Democrats chose to accept defeat it is impossible to be sure.
What is certain, however, is that disenfranchising black voters is an ugly national tradition going right back to the Constitution. Under Jim Crow in the South it was carried out by the Democratic ("Dixiecrat") Party while today it is mainly the Republicans who play this game. But it should not be thought that this is simply a Southern issue. And the silence of the Democrats on this issue is deafening even though it clearly cost them the 2000 election. As Palast says, "There’s a lot of politicians in both parties that like it that way; suppression of the minority vote is the way they get elected."
In a broader sense, the government could easily require a uniform, transparent voting technology for federal elections that leaves a paper trail and is not prone to "spoilage". Instead we continue to see a range of systems and now the introduction of paperless electronic voting that studies show is very much open to tampering. Despite the danger to the credibility of their political system, the American ruling class appears happier to maintain the option of stealing elections.
As socialists, we call not only for getting rid of electronic voting and punch cards but also for instant voter registration (this could be done for example when people get their social security numbers or drivers’ licenses). Election day should be a paid national holiday to allow workers and the poor full access to the voting process. There should also be one national standard of ballot access with a low threshold for independents and third parties to prevent the type of anti-democratic campaign waged by the Democrats this year to keep Ralph Nader off the ballot. And as regards presidential elections, it is obviously past time to abolish the completely undemocratic Electoral College.
Achieving these and other basic reforms would not change the fundamental character of an electoral system dominated by corporate interests. But even simple reforms will not be enacted as long as there is a political monopoly by two parties who have no interest in changing the situation. Achieving these demands will require the pressure of a new political party based on the interests of the working class, people of color, immigrants and young people.