Americans show intense desire to be ‘finished with it’

By Tom Baxter

Before a vote is counted, America’s voters have already spoken loudly about one thing. Despite laws passed specifically to suppress the practice, long lines and the occasional voting machine rejecting their choices, Americans voted early in record numbers this year.

It may be that this particular presidential campaign has inspired an unusually strong desire to be “finished with it,” as one South Georgia voter put it. But the trends we can seen manifested in the past few weeks of early voting will only grow stronger, increasing the pressure on lawmakers to come up with an election system more appropriate to this century than what we have now.

Voter lines

The nation’s elections system is as decrepit as many bridges and roads, and will take a lot of work by an array of civic leaders to repair. Credit: 11Alive

Our voting system isn’t rigged, it’s jerry-rigged. This election year, with its shadowy suggestions of Russian dirty tricks, its last-minute court rulings concerning ballot access in North Carolina, and those malfunctioning voting machines, has outlined what amounts to one of this country’s great infrastructural failures in this century.

When the century began, people like former Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox were talking about a voting system so transparent and technically advanced that people would vote as conveniently as they would buy a pair of shoes, and sometimes in the same shopping center. The chaos of the butterfly ballots and hanging chads of the 2000 presidential election was to be a thing of the past.

What we have instead is a system limping by on outdated software, crippled by suspicions from every side, growing ever more varied on the way elections are conducted across the country. Many states have changed their voting rules, then changed them again, in some instances. What had seemed a worthy nonpartisan goal at the beginning of the century has devolved into the most partisan of battlefields. We’ve innovated enough to grow a new set of problems without investing enough to shake off the problems we had.

This election will be decided by some states which have early voting, such as Florida, North Carolina and Georgia, and others which don’t, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Hampshire. In some states you can mail in your vote. Some voters will have cast their ballots before FBI Director James Comey’s first letter concerning Hillary Clinton’s emails, and a much larger number before his second. This whole business with the letters doesn’t look like it will have a decisive impact on the race, but that might not be the case with some late-breaking event in a future election.

Put with all this the very real questions of ballot access, the deep anxiety by many voters over paperless ballots, the voodoo of redistricting and the general suspicion, conjured by Donald Trump, that the system is rigged, and the state of our election process looks a frayed as our creakiest bridges and roads. Fixing this will not be the job of the next president, but of everybody who has a stake in the American system of government. And it’s not going to be an easy job.

(I’ll be updating with a look at what the election has wrought after the polls have closed.)

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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