Three Men Get into a Taxi... Does Fareed Zakaria have a point about our elections?
There's a joke that is very popular in Mexico and it goes something like this...
Three guys are in a taxi on their way to the airport and they begin to talk about elections and whose country is the best. The first guy, and American, says that in his country, the greatest democracy in the world, after everyone votes, the people know the results after only a few hours, or days, at most.
The second guy, from China, boasts that that's nothing. In China he says, with a billion people, they have gigantic computers that count the votes and they no the winner the minute the polls close, which is clearly better than America.
Scoffing at this, the third guy, from Mexico chimes in... That's nothing he says, puffing out his chest with pride... in my country millions of people vote in every election and you know what? We know the results a month ahead of time!
With this in the back of my mind, I was surprised Sunday morning to hear Fareed Zakaria on his GPS Show reference Mexico as a place where the United States can look for guidance in how to run an election.
Here's what he said...
Imagine a country on Election Day where you know the results the instant the polls close. The votes are counted electronically, every district and state has the same rules and the same organized voting procedure. It is managed by a nonpartisan independent party.
Sounds like the greatest democracy in the world, right? Try Mexico or France, Germany, Brazil, certainly not the United States of America.
American has one of the world's most antique, politicized and dysfunctional procedures for its elections. A crazy, quilt patchwork of state and local laws with partisan officials making key decisions and ancient technology that often breaks down.
There are no national standards. American voters in more than a dozen states, for example, don't need identification, but even India, with a GDP just 12 percent that of ours, is implementing a national biometric database for 1.2 billion voters.
The nascent democracy in Iraq famously dipped voters' fingers in purple to ensure they didn't vote again. Why are we do behind the curve?
The conservative columnist, David Frum, recently wrote an excellent article for CNN.com and he tells a story about the 2000 presidential election. The City of St. Louis, Missouri, had outdated voting equipment so there were long delays in voting.
But St. Louis was heavily Democratic so Al Gore's campaign asked a judge to extend voting by three hours. The judge agreed, but then George W. Bush's campaign protested and the judge was overruled. Meanwhile, voting had already continued 45 minutes past the legal time.
Is that how elections should work in the world's greatest democracy? In most other countries, an independent national body would make the big decisions, there would be nonpartisan observers at the polls and, of course, there would be modern, functioning equipment.
Even Venezuela, which had elections last month, had electronic voting booths with biometric technology across the country.
We've been criticized around the world for this. I saw a scathing, 116-page report about our electoral process published by, of all places, Russia.
Here's the Wall Street Journal's translation of it, "The electoral system and electoral of the United States are contradictory, archaic, and moreover do not meet the democratic principles that the U.S. proclaims are fundamental to its foreign and domestic policy."
I hate to say it, but Moscow has a point. On the other hand, we do have one thing the Russians don't, actual free elections.
This election season, we've seen attempts to shorten the early voting period to further one party's chances of victory. Our ballots can be as long as a dozen pages.
In some places, they're paper ballots and, in some, they're electronic. And Election Day always falls on a Tuesday, a working day. Every four years, we see the chaos of American elections, but nothing changes.
This week, international election observers were banned from nine states. Some of these men and women were threatened with arrest. Maybe we should learning from election officials from abroad not trying to throw them into jail.
I will tell you that in Mexico's case, as the joke implies, there are some problems. But there are some strengths as well. If you are going to vote, you need a national elector card provided by that non partisan group Zakaria referenced. Your finger, after you vote, is inked like in many countries, to prevent double voting. You will also see poll watchers at almost every precinct from the major political parties working to ensure that everyone who is entitled to vote gets that opportunity.
Finally, Mexico votes on a Sunday, when most people do not work and can more easily get to the polls and not miss a day of work. The winner is then announced that evening at 10:00pm.
Do they have it all figured out? No they don't, and neither do any of those other countries listed above. But maybe, just maybe, the United States can look across the global spectrum and come up with a system that is better for us, mixing the strengths of some of these places.
We've got to do something... because a system that is controlled by whichever party wins the various Secretary of State office elections across this country is ripe for partisan abuse.
Right now the world is laughing at us. As we admonish the rest of the world to become more democratic like us, they are asking why.
Why should they allow political parties to take control of their public airwaves for six months every two years, broadcast lie after lie, and then send people to stand in sometimes, five hours lines, for the right to cast a vote that may take days, or weeks to count, if it is even counted at all?