Random things about the way we vote

The way we vote for President is messed up. If you’re reading this, chances are good you lived through the 2000 election and I don’t need to convince you. That said, some of my favorite recent headlines that should help drive home the point that nothing’s really improved in twelve years:

Will Romney win the popular vote but lose the presidency? – Ezra Klein for the Wonk Blog

A Romney-Biden White House? It could happen – John Klotsche for the LA Times

What if neither Mitt Romney nor President Obama wins on Nov. 6? – Jeremy Mayer for the Christian Science Monitor

Those last two articles outline the possibility of an electoral college tie, which begs the obvious question of why the voting body isn’t composed of an odd number of votes. (Obvious answer: that would make too much sense.)

That introduction out of the way, I want to share two other things about the way we vote. (No, this post isn’t meant to be cohesive, mostly because I don’t have time to even try.)

The first comes from Mayer’s CSM article, and describes something I knew, and you know, but that I hadn’t heard in quite this context before:

America, unlike most advanced democracies, does not have, in most states, a nonpartisan election administration system. Instead, elected or appointed partisans are typically in charge of elections. This is such a bad idea, that when we set up quasi-democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq, we didn’t copy our own system.


The second is a connection that is apparently (judging from the Wikipedia article) common knowledge, but that I only learned when I read about it in Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception by Charles Seife. What I mean to say is, I knew about voter disenfranchisement, and I knew the phrase ‘grandfather clause’ – but I had no idea the two were seminally connected:

After the Civil War, former slave-owning states used all sorts of tricks to prevent emancipated slaves from exercising their right to vote. They would create barriers to voter registration that were particularly burdensome to African Americans, who tended to be in the poorer and less well-educated segments of society. For example, in a number of states, people weren’t allowed to vote unless they had paid a small fee — a “poll tax” — which of course hit poor African Americans much harder than richer citizens. (Especially since many white voters were exempted from paying the tax because of a “grandfather clause.” These sorts of clauses tended to exempt a person from the poll tax if he could prove that his grandfather had the right to vote — which white folk usually could and African Americans could not.

This might not be news to all you political science majors, but I follow politics pretty closely (as you may have gathered) and I had never come across this before, and so imagine some of you hadn’t either.

And about the so-called “poll tax” – Seife claims it’s derived from the Old English ‘polle’, meaning head. In other words, it doesn’t have anything to do with going to the polls. I guess that makes three things about voting, not two – but who’s counting?

Hopefully not the same person counting your vote.


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