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Reflections on Ethics & Values in Policy 25 November 2000

US Elections 2000: "Deep" vs. "Shallow" Democracy

It has always been my intention that EPIC-Online.net serve an international audience. For that reason, I have erred on the side of not including news of the recent, long-suffering Presidential election, yet to be decided as I write. (It may be more than a week away from resolution since the US Supreme Court has agreed to consider the effect of a 113-year old Federal statute on the election in Florida.) It is hard to miss in any event, and the election is very much on my mind.

There is one aspect of the Florida situation that has occupied much of my thinking. There is a very real sense in which the way the election was conducted nearly three weeks ago has deprived certain voters of their voice in American public affairs. But something has bothered me about this for a time, and I think I now know what it is.

That some voters' votes will not count is certainly the case in Florida for those who couldn't follow the "butterfly ballot," whose voting machine did not fully punch out a chad, or who received bad advice on election day. It is particularly true for those military personnel who voted under a system that requires a post mark, when military mail, especially in a combat zone, is not customarily post marked.

I have come to think, however, that what is at issue here is not just whether their votes a few weeks ago count, but whether these individual voters are being deprived of their democratic rights in a "deep" or a "shallow" sense. "Deep"? "Shallow"? Let me set up a hypothetical to demonstrate the difference between deep and shallow democracy before defining them.

Suppose the contested counties held an open debate over how much money to spend on the elections process. Some complained about antiquated voting equipment; others complained that the elderly could not read the ballot; and still others argued for paid and well-trained bureaucrats instead of volunteers staffing the polling places.

It is certainly true that there could have been such complaints and arguments unless, I suppose, all that election equipment went out of date just this year, the elderly became strangely handicapped only this year, and the previously adequate volunteer training proved mysteriously ineffective, again only this year. So, suppose further that some degree of consensus was reached to maintain the status quo—that the government had higher priorities for this term, for example, and they'd take another look at it for the 2004 elections.

Such debate almost certainly never occurred, at least not openly. But, in a representative democracy, the voters in Florida had the power at all times to ensure that it had reliable, fair voting processes. They had a legislature that voted, presumably after some deliberation and debate, to set some time-certain to conclude the vote tally. They had elected local governments that funded, equipped, and staffed the processes. That truly effective polling was not the result was almost certainly a choice.

The fact that this election and its processes failed, then, is less a result of unfairness than incompetence. But their failure is the result of an incompetence that has been voted into office by the very people complaining of the unfairness.

The essence of ethics and the policies that stem from them is that individuals are responsible for the choices they make, including the decisions made by their duly elected representatives. This is what distinguishes "deep" from "shallow" democracy. Without such responsibility, we are no longer talking in terms of ethics. In a shallow sense, then, certain voters may have been treated unfairly. But this is an unfairness in much the same sense that life itself is unfair—so long as their disenfranchisement was merely the luck of the "incompetence draw."

This conclusion applies to those who couldn't follow the butterfly ballot designed precisely to aid the elderly. And, it breaks my heart to say, it also applies to the overseas military vote. If the voters of the State of Florida with its large military active and retired populations elect legislators who require a post mark for overseas voters, including the military, and don't have the experience or foresight to determine that there is often no post mark for the military voter, then, in a deep sense, the voters have gotten what they voted for.

In all cases, the voters' lack of attention and their representatives' incompetence should not hold the rest of the country hostage after the times set by Federal or state law. Nor should existing rules be changed after the fact. Let Florida fix its processes for the next election.

What would be a violation of "deep" democracy? Here, disenfranchisement on the basis of race, creed, or gender, or systemic fraud, would be unfair in a deep sense. It is tempting to include the elderly as such a disadvantaged group, but for the fact that, in the US at least, the elderly are widely seen to be a powerful voting group of people. Certainly the AARP is an adequate voice, federal subsidies and all, to argue for "elder-friendly" voting. It would even be in its own self-interest to do so.

Florida's incompetence has cast a long pall over the US 2000 election for President, though I suspect that few other states would stand up to similarly-close scrutiny. My guess is that the 1887 Federal statute requiring that each election for Federal office be decided on rules set before the election itself was designed to avoid precisely this situation, at least in part.

Still, this is a great country, quite aside from its government; it will survive whichever politician ends up in office, and however slender his mantle. Moreover, this pain will have been worthwhile if we learn from it. If we now understand the significance of each and every vote, then perhaps we have also learned that the voting processes must be worthy of the sacredness of the votes themselves. If not, then, in the words of the Dutch proverb: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

Kenneth W. Johnson

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