Saving democracy in the midterm elections

It’s the day before the midterm elections and all polls point to a significant gain by Democrats. Control of the House is almost conceded as a certainty. Control of the Senate remains a real possibility.

Still, some doubt lingers. Some of this doubt is due to the fact that the Democrats have seemed on the verge of victory twice before, in 2000 and 2004, only to see it evaporate at the last minute. Of course, many contend that the Democratic presidential candidates did not really lose these elections. Rather, the election was “stolen” by miscounts or outright fraud in key states such as Florida (in 2000) and Ohio (in 2004). WIth the rise of electronic voting machines, that are easily tampered and leave no paper trail, many are worried whether another election may get stolen tomorrow.

Even if the election is 100% legitimate, however, there are still problems for the Democrats to overcome. In particular, there is the gerrymandering of district lines as wel as the various forms of voter intimidation, as nicely summarized in an editorial and a column in today’s New York Times.

This led me to wonder: “What’s going on here? Is all of this vote manipulation really a larger and more serious problem than ever before?”

My answer is: “Yes.” Sure, many of this problems have existed for decades. Indeed, the origin of the term “gerrymander” dates back to the year 1812, as described here. But two things have changed in recent years:

Technology. Years ago, politicians may have wanted to create the perfect shaped district for ensuring the re-election of the incumbent, but it was hard to figure out exactly what the district should look like. Now, with computers to generate hypothetical results and easily try out different scenarios, it’s as easy as pressing a few keys. Similarly, with email and the Internet, it is much easier to target very large numbers of voters to receive your message than it was years ago.

Republicans. In the past, there was a line that (at least most) politicians would not cross when deciding how far they could go in carrying out these tactics. To some extent, I imagine the line was determined by a sense of ethics. At least I would like to think so. More realistically, it was also affected by the specter of revenge. That is, whatever you did to your opponent today, your opponent would do to you tomorrow, if and when the tables got turned, as they inevitably would be.

Today’s Republicans seem unfazed by either of these constraints. And this is something new. First, there seems no line they are unwilling to cross. There is no campaign tactic or Congressional action or whatever, that is deemed so extreme as to be avoided. If they believe they can get away with it (and these days, they often can), they do it. Second, the fear of revenge appears tempered by a belief that, if they are really as good at their tactics as they expect to be, the opportunity for retribution will never come — because they will never lose power again.

If this latter expectation were really to come to pass, it would mean the end of democracy as we know it. Without the possibility of meaningful opposition from another party, without the power of voters to remove those currently in office, without Congress acting as a branch of government independent of the executive, we have a dictatorship in fact, even if not in name.

More than any other reason, this is why I hope that the Democrats get back control of Congress tomorrow. If they do, I hope that the Democrats forgo their opportunity at retribution. It’s time to try to break this cycle of each side screwing the other whenever they get the chance. Instead, I hope the Democrats show the country there is a better way to conduct the nation’s business. It may happen. Or it may not. But one thing is certain: It won’t happen if the Republicans win.

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