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Michael Kinsley

In With the New Voting

By Michael Kinsley
Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page B07

For better or worse, 2004 was the year the American Way of Voting changed. What had been startling novelties in the 2000 election were confirmed as new traditions. Recounts and legal challenges don't shock us: We expect them. And other developments suddenly got noticed after years of steady growth. In Washington state, where I vote, they mail you a ballot on request, no questions asked, and once you're on the list you get a mailed ballot in subsequent elections without even asking. Nationwide, a fifth or more of all votes on Nov. 2 came in some way other than going to the polls on Election Day.

Frankly, it's a mess. "Election Day" now goes on for weeks, and tabulating the result goes on even longer. No one has confidence in the count. The complex orchestrations of political campaign consultants -- composed to reach a crescendo at exactly the right moment -- are outmoded. But a mess isn't necessarily a bad thing.

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The new voting makes us uncomfortable because it strips away a lot of myth and ritual and forces us to realize that democracy is not an exact science. You count the votes, whether by machine or by hand, and you get a different number every time. There is nothing magic about what I think on Nov. 2 that makes it superior to what I might think on Oct. 25 or Nov. 10. Most important, the inherent winner-take-all nature of elections is an unavoidable but serious defect. If a vote is so close that every recount changes the result (as in the recent race for governor in Washington state), it's fantasy to claim that either possible result is superior to the other as an expression of the people's will. Yet the winner by one vote takes the same office with the same powers as the winner by a landslide.

The old voting was romantic. It believed, or pretended to believe, the great cliche of democracy that "every vote counts." The new voting is tragic. It knows that every vote does not count. If an election is so close that one vote might make the difference, the mechanics of democracy aren't sharp enough to make that call accurately, and the philosophy of democracy is inadequate to explain why decisions that affect everyone should turn on such an infinitesimal difference in the count.

Democracy will survive this splash of cold water. One specific and unintended consequence of the new voting, though, needs a bit of chewing over. That is the incipient death of the secret ballot. Sure, you can keep a mailed or Internet ballot secret if you want to. But that's not good enough. The idea of the secret ballot is to free you by restricting you. No one will try to coerce or induce you to vote a certain way if you cannot prove that you've done as told.

Maybe coerced or induced voting will become a significant problem. But there is no reason to assume that they will or to elevate the secret ballot to a sacred rite of democracy that trumps all lesser considerations. The new "convenience voting" (as it might be called) seems to be increasing voter turnout, which is no bad thing for democracy. And convenience itself deserves some consideration. Voting is, among other things, a burden. The new voting, with its unromantic realization that every vote does not count, emphasizes that burden. Voting is more a rite than a right. So it had better be convenient.

Let's not get carried away about the secret ballot. It is not part of the Constitution or inherent in the concept of democracy. It came in, in England and America, in the second half of the 19th century. The New England town meeting and the Iowa presidential caucuses are older American democratic traditions in which public embrace of a candidate is not just allowed, but central.

And there are new democratic habits waiting to develop into traditions, built around the mailed or e-mailed ballot. My wife and I had a great time going through our ballots together on a Sunday morning, with a laptop nearby so we could Google the names we didn't know and plenty of coffee to get us through the initiatives and referendums. Next time, we may try a bottle of wine, to overcome our inhibitions about voting Republican.

The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.


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