Elections often bring out the worst in us. We pride ourselves on our ability to consistently hold clean contests that exemplify the democratic process. However, despite our self-congratulatory proclamations, it is clear that the process is far from perfect.
The senatorial race in Florida exemplifies what troubles our system. When Governor Charlie Crist first announced his intent to seek the office more than a year ago, he was a darling of the Republican party, once rumored as a potential running mate for John McCain. All of that changed, however, when he strayed from the right, supported President Obama’s economic policies, and physically embraced the President during a brief Florida stop.
Crist quickly went from party favorite to pariah. His political views (never fully in line with the right) and allegiance to the Republican party were questioned, and rumors about his lifestyle circulated. When the Republicans effectively abandoned Crist and embraced conservative Marco Rubio, a favorite of the Tea Party movement, Crist retaliated by leaving the party and announcing that he intended to run as an independent. This led to shouts of “treason” and mutual finger pointing and name calling. It has gotten very ugly and very personal and, as the election approaches, the political atmosphere is expected to worsen.
Many who witness the political goings-on in Florida and elsewhere wax nostalgic about the “good old days” when American politics were different. The truth, however, is that the old days were as bad as the new.
Throughout history, American elections have been plagued by personal attacks, gerrymandering, and attempts to steal votes. The phrase “vote early and vote often” may have been popularized in Chicago, where death has often presented a mere inconvenience to voting, but the problem is widespread.
South Florida, whose political atmosphere has at times been characterized as that of a “banana republic,” has endured many questionable local elections, though perhaps none worse than the 1997 Miami mayoral campaign. The result of that election was overturned when the losing candidate’s challenge uncovered severe irregularities, including voting corpses. As a result of those irregularities, all absentee ballots were discounted, and the outcome of the tight election reversed.
Our founding fathers effectively set the tone for future elections. The presidential contest in 1796 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was replete with personal attacks on Adams by the latter’s supporters, a curious and disturbing circumstance given the friendship that had apparently existed between Adams and Jefferson. The events of that election, and the political atmosphere of the time, are vividly related by William Safire in his historical novel Scandalmonger (2000), the story of James T. Callender, a political pamphleteer and newspaper writer who became Jefferson’s principal weapon in his war against the Federalists.
Further, one hundred twenty four years before Bush v. Gore, an American presidential election raised the specter of a “stolen” presidency. In 1876, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden held 184 electoral votes to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes’ 165, with 20 votes in three states (Louisiana, South Carolina and, not surprisingly, Florida) uncounted. A struggle then commenced for the remaining votes, replete with allegations of fraud, coercion, and vote manipulation. All three states initially reported returns favoring Tilden but, after many votes were disallowed due to technical irregularities, all three states, and therefore the presidency, went to Hayes. The final vote tally was 185 to 184, and the result was affirmed 8 to 7 (many say as part of a broader compromise) by a specially appointed commission consisting of five members of each branch of Congress, and five members of the U.S. Supreme Court. Gore Vidal’s novel 1876 (1976), part of his generally excellent Narratives of Empire series, recounts the events surrounding the 1876 election in an entertaining and informative manner.
Perhaps no novelist has captured the unfortunate spirit of American elections better than Tom Perrotta. In his novel Election (1998), Perrotta uses the election of a high school student body president to highlight everything that is wrong with our electoral process. What starts out as a contest between an unpopular, ambitious young woman and a very popular, underachieving athlete, quickly deteriorates and culminates in a teacher’s destruction of two key voting slips to ensure the election of his favored candidate. At one point, Perrotta, through one of his characters, makes the following observation:
The logistics of a high school election are no laughing matter. At the same time you’re educating your students about democracy, you’re working to safeguard the process against fraud. It’s sad but true: given half a chance, most kids will cheat to win. They’re a lot like adults in this respect.
Sadly, Perrotta’s observation is all too true. It is unfortunate that we feel the need to denigrate candidates, misrepresent issues, and manipulate voters’ rolls. By so doing, we compromise the process and snatch the decision away from the voter.