At the beginning of every leap year, America's political life starts to revolve around the small group striving to attain the nation's highest office. The race to the White House has now begun in earnest, with most people's attention focused on the candidates in the only currently competitive race —for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.
The 2004 election cycle promises to be one of the most important in the country's modern history, and not just because of the historic events that have unfolded since President George W. Bush's inauguration three years ago. War, terror, and economic stagnation have pushed to the backs of many people's minds the dubious circumstances that culminated in Bush taking the oath of office.
For several weeks in 2000, the fragility of American democracy and its institutions seemed painfully obvious. The candidate with the most votes lost. Even under the antiquated Electoral College, the world will likely never know who truly won the election. For a while afterward, talk of reform was rife. Then time passed, and 9/11 happened.
Now, with the country at war and all eyes on the personalities involved in the nascent campaign, the at times flawed process by which the winner will be decided fades into the background.
The fact is that the presidential selection process in this country is seriously flawed in a number of ways. The debacle in Florida and the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 made that abundantly clear. Since then, some problems have been addressed, while others still obtain. More worryingly, new flaws have been introduced that may serve to prevent the people from expressing their will.
All else being perfect (it's not), free and fair elections cannot take place without the means to accurately count the completed ballots. In a misguided attempt to solve some of the low-tech problems encountered on Election Day 2000, however, the government and voting-equipment manufacturers might have introduced new high-tech deficiencies into the system.
After the term "hanging chad" entered the lexicon in 2000, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002. In part, this bill established a program to provide funds to states to replace punch card voting systems. Unfortunately, some of the touch-screen voting computers that replaced them are easily manipulated and insecure, according to a report published last year by Johns Hopkins University.
Even flawless operation and airtight security are not enough to satisfy electronic voting expert Dr. Rebecca Mercuri. She has lent her name to the "Mercuri Method" of vote tabulation, which requires a user-verifiable, auditable paper trail to ensure votes are properly tallied. Many new voting machines do not produce such a record.
Of course, accurate balloting means little if the process used to decide who can stand in an election is unfair. The current Democratic primary race, for example, has been badly skewed by some in the mainstream media. As Jacqueline Bacon pointed out last year in the September/October issue of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting's magazine Extra, reporters write off some candidates from the very beginning of the race and virtually pencil others in. The examples of media bias Bacon cites in "Weeding the Field" appeared over the course of months in highly prestigious publications, such as Time and The Washington Post.
By early last year, Sen. John Kerry had already been named the frontrunner in the primary campaign, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, former Ambassador Carol Moseley-Braun and the Rev. Al Sharpton were already being counted out. Once such designations have been made, they can become self-fulfilling prophecies as newsrooms focus undue attention on the frontrunner or ignore the candidates who most need media exposure to become competitive.
When former Gov. Howard Dean's campaign began to gain momentum, reports about it often focused on Internet organizing. Once polls showed Dean becoming a serious threat to the conventional wisdom that the primary season would serve as Kerry's ordination, the tenor of reports about the Vermont maverick changed. For months, the mantra in much of the press has been that nominating someone as "liberal" as Dean will only ensure Bush's reelection. Just 24 hours before the Iowa caucuses convened, Dean had fallen back into a virtual dead heat with Kerry and others.
If events follow at all the path they took during the last election cycle, the most egregious slight will not come unless and until serious third-party contenders emerge to be snubbed by journalists and completely barred from the debate process.
Although it has dropped off the public's radar screen recently, the campaign finance system still threatens to disrupt the supposedly level playing field of American democracy. Despite the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (often referred to as the McCain-Feingold Bill), signed into law in 2002 and largely upheld by the Supreme Court last year, millions of "soft money" dollars might filter into the presidential race this year anyway. Under a loophole in the legislation, so-" 527 committees" are collecting funds that they might be able to spend on campaign advertisements. The Federal Election Commission is set to issue regulations on the activities of 527 committees as early as May, but the cash can keep rolling in until at least then.
Even excluding unintentional loopholes that need patching, the current method of paying for elections is problematic. The very rich, such as Kerry, have the option of filling their campaign coffers with their own money. The very good at fundraising, such as Bush, can forgo federal matching monies to exempt themselves from overall limits on the amount of hard money they can spend.
When the prize is becoming the most powerful man on Earth, even something as simple as the scheduling of primaries and caucuses unfairly affects candidates' prospects. For example, by failing to win in his Midwestern neighborhood, Congressman Richard Gephardt's campaign was brought to a halt. Now that Kerry is headed to New Hampshire with a win under his belt, Dean's surge might have run out of steam. If Sen. John Edwards, who finished well in the Iowa caucuses Jan. 19, repeats the performance next week in New England, his campaign would have momentum going into the primary in South Carolina on Feb. 3.
We now know who Iowa's delegates will be voting for at the nominating convention this summer. It might take a lot longer to tell whether or not this campaign will be a much-needed victory for American democracy.
Joshua C. Robinson is covering the presidential campaign monthly for CityBeat.