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Patchwork at the Polls

The way we vote is about as homogenous as the electorate itself. Is it fair? New book makes a case for celebrating — sort of — the diversity in American democracy

By Lee Ann Cox Article published October 8, 2008

Kroepsch-Maurice winner Alec Ewald, expert in voting rights and constitutional law, on teaching: “I talk about looking for echoes, connections to historical material that in some stimulating way enrich your experience of the present." Class work, Ewald insists, “should improve our ability to think and feel and care about the questions that are most interesting and mysterious in our lives.” (Photo: Sally McCay)

On Nov. 4, a voter in Charlotte, Vt., will stand in line, children in tow, chatting with his neighbors outside the school gym while waiting to be given a paper ballot and a black Sharpie. In Pittsburgh, a voter will use controversial touch-screen technology. Nationwide, a predicted one in three voters may have made their picks as absentees weeks ahead, many, like everyone in Oregon, mailing them in. These contrasts barely touch on the inconsistencies in how elections are run from towns to cities, parishes to counties, across the country.

Voting — as we envision it — is a national, Constitution-based right. But that's not how it's exercised. In his forthcoming book, The Way We Vote: The Local Dimension of American Suffrage, Alec Ewald, assistant professor of political science and passionate proponent of participatory democracy, writes, “…in some ways the Constitution means what your county elections board says it does.”

So local control — from voter registration, ballot design and technology, distribution of voting machines, how votes are counted (and recounted), even who is allowed to vote — is inherent to our system. That's always been true.

“Pick your favorite American election,” says Ewald. “1980. 1960. 1800. 1860. Jackson! Whatever election you think made an important difference in this country's history, you will find a level of variation in the way people voted that absolutely dwarfs anything we see today, especially if you go back to the 19th century.”

Yet only since the debacle of 2000 have we seen the dramatic effect it can have on outcomes. There was attempt at reform, with modest results, when Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), before which even statewide voter rolls were nonexistent. “Are we going to condemn every election held before that time because information wasn't centralized?” asks Ewald. “Of course not. And at the same time we should be critical.”

Ballot boxing
Ewald's book uses historical, legal, and theoretical analysis to critique the role of local control in voting, ultimately making a cautious case that it serves democracy. “I'm not,” he says, “defending localism with all its warts and ugliness and incompetency and instances of outright fraud, but I do believe it has some powerfully redemptive characteristics.”

It also has problems. One area that concerns Ewald deeply because it encompasses fundamental voter eligibility is felony disenfranchisement, an issue on which he has broad expertise. As he writes in his book, “The practice of voter disqualification and restoration effectively varies by locality, and rests ultimately on the competence and knowledge of local officials,” which, based on Ewald's extensive interviews, turns out to be woefully poor, erring on the side of exclusion.

The lack of uniformity is staggering. Writes Ewald, “In two states, Maine and Vermont, felons retain the right to vote even while incarcerated; about one-fifth of the states disqualify only those currently serving time in prison. In most states, people in prison as well as those sentenced to probation, and/or on parole following release from prison, cannot vote — but everyone who has completed their sentence may vote. And in nine states, at least some people are disqualified from voting even after all aspects of their sentences have been discharged — some for waiting periods of two or five years, others indefinitely.”

And yet, despite reports and fears of inequality, Ewald points to historical instances in which local control was responsible for the inclusion of many who might have been considered ineligible. Property ownership laws were often ignored for well-known community members. Long before the 19th Amendment many women were allowed to vote at least in local elections. Up until the 1920s even citizenship was not always a requirement.

Some local inconsistency, to be sure, can be a product of partisanship or inept poll workers or election officials, but the process is enormously complex.

Acting democracy
Ewald's take is a mixed message that leans towards favoring local autonomy. After all, innovation can occur within localities and be empirically tested; localism gives voters greater control over the process; and it can limit certain kinds of fraud and corruption. To the extent that experimentation causes errors, Ewald argues that they're likely to be randomly distributed and thus would not skew an election. If they aren't random — a wealthier community has access to better voting technology than a poorer one — there's a problem that must be addressed.

That said, some of the experimentation he finds reasonable but disappointing, namely absentee voting and an idea that even in name causes him to shudder: “curbside voting.”

“Voting,” Ewald says, “is not just about recording our policy preferences. It's about picking a winner, but it is also about engaging in a public, ritual activity, affirming our identity and control and sovereignty over the political system. We need to elect a government that is legitimate in the eyes of the community, some number of voters need to know something about policy, but I also believe when that ritual involves more people, when they feel connected, feel equal to each other, that is also a way elections make a democracy function.”

What Ewald calls his “weaker” case for local control is not that Americans shouldn't try to reform the failings that exist in that system, but to appreciate how much greater the impact of gerrymandering and the electoral college has on the meaning of an individual's vote. “We would still be doing radically unequal things when we vote because of deeper structural inequities,” explains Ewald. “So that for me tempers the case for homogenizing voting practices.”

That man in Vermont, along with voters in Texas and other “solid states,” know their votes can't change the game. They, like Ewald, might favor abolishing the electoral college, but that is an incredible challenge that won't come soon, if ever. Yet the voters are there anyway. By whatever means their ballot is cast, they want a part in democracy.

As Ewald says in The Way We Vote, “For good or ill, the precious thing Americans call `the right to vote' cannot be separated from the institutional context in which it is exercised. Local practices are that thing — they form it and create its meaning.”