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US Elections: PR Nightmare

There is no other news. If Brunei was hoping for a surge in American tourists on the back of hosting the APEC conference it had better stick to oil-drilling, because the television networks here have made scant made reference to Clinton's 'trip to South East Asia'. Even the situation in the Middle East is reduced to one line, as scary as that is: "The Israelis no longer call this an uprising; it is war."

On the domestic front the "battle for the ballots" is an "emotional bungee jump" and a "whirlwind of intrigue" and even Wall Street market commentators are coming over all philosophical saying: "This too shall pass." Little credence has been given the Bush camp assertion that the longer this goes on the more uncertain it makes the markets. The only reason the markets are uncertain is that a number of tech earnings have come in under prediction, which, far from being a bad thing, simply represents a great opportunity for bargain hunters. A clean sweep of the House, the Senate and the White House would've made investors much more nervous.

This time last week commentators were saying that the close vote would be a test of the two presidential hopefuls and for a couple of days the two of them were up for comparison in the way they were handling the situation. They have receded very much into the background now, although Gore the Taunter could not resist pontificating from just outside the White House portico on how he was sure his opponent wouldn't want to win on the basis of uncounted votes. He looked about as statesmanlike as a schoolboy dangling a piece of chicken just out of reach of a starving kitten.

For his part, Bush seems to have taken a sicky from his duties as Governor of Texas and sequestered himself away at his ranch. Not a good look. He was reported by a Newsweek journalist as having said on election night: "I can't believe this is happening. This is like running for a city council seat." The Florida recount has drawn such comments from his supporters as: "It's a highly sophisticated vote-manufacturing procedure." through to "Why don't they go to Chicago, where they invented irregularities? Even the dead vote in Chicago." Democrat front man Bill Daley is the son of the infamous Mayor Daley of Chicago, where voter fraud was allegedly a given.

One dead voter it would be interesting to have around right now is Martin Diamond, who wrote a little booklet just before he died in 1977 called: The Electoral College and the American Idea of Democracy. In it he defends the Electoral College against the American Bar Association's much-quoted sentence from a 1967 report that: "The electoral college method of electing a President of the United States is archaic, undemocratic, complex, ambiguous, indirect, and dangerous." To which the ABA might now like to add "profitable".

Diamond discusses and dismisses these charges one by one and in the course of his arguments mentions the 'popgun possibility' being raised at the time and waved around as if it were a 'loaded pistol': "The great undemocratic threat of the Electoral College, then, is the possibility that, so to speak, of 80 million votes, 50 percent minus one would rule over 50 percent plus one."

He goes on to say that: "Historically, the problem of democracy was not about minute margins of electoral victory, but about whether, say 5 percent (of the rich and wellborn few), should rule over 95 percent (the poor many), to use the classical terms.... Only a country as thoroughly and safely democratic as ours could invent the 50 percent problem and make a tempest in a democratic teacup out of it." Such a result wouldn't "threaten or make a mockery of the democratic foundations of our political order."

Well, with TV networks staying on air live to the West Coast every morning because every hour some new twist or turn emerges from the recount story, there are those who are saying mockery quite plainly has been made. And there are those who are saying how it simply proves how thoroughly and safely democratic the United States is. Ordinary people seem to view these events in a positive light, in the sense that it has proved once and for all that 'every vote counts'. No small achievement in a country that struggles to get even 50 percent of its population to vote.

With the spotlight having fallen on the archaic machinery used to cast votes, perhaps long overdue money will be spent on the voter end of democracy instead of just up at the candidate end. It's a pity that the complaints of all the seemingly lesser mortals (like candidates for city council) who have been similarly diddled out of elected office by a few swinging chads were ignored until someone 'important enough' was hurt enough for changes to be made. Perhaps Diamond was wrong to think the "5 percent vs 95 percent" problem of democracy disappeared once the country had universal suffrage - it merely assumed a different guise.

It's unlikely that the Electoral College will be abolished. It gives power to smaller states that they otherwise would not have, even if it still means that the candidates just fly over the least important ones during campaigns. The more interesting question is what this has done for third parties and the move towards some kind of proportional representation system in US elections. On the one hand you have an influential Democratic supporter say on a national TV that he will not speak the name of a certain 'ego-maniac' that he thinks cost Gore the election. His advice to fellow Democrats was: 'don't even speak to him, just walk out of the room'.

On the other hand you see the obvious enthusiasm people have for this sudden taste of voter power. This is the moment for PR supporters to strike because it's so easy to show how the "unit rule" system of the electoral college - whereby states vote only for the candidate who got the most votes in their state, even if "most" is a majority of 300 - disenfranchises more than half the voters (when you include on the losing side the people who voted for third parties and independents).

The votes and comments of the young in this election also seem to favour a change from the plurality system of voting (first-past-the-post) used to elect everyone except the president. But then, if the two parties who have held power for so long - and who don't want to let that power go - are determined to let the current presidential election custard go sour this opportunity for PR might turn into a PR nightmare, in all senses of the acronym.

Lea Barker
Wednesday 15th October (PT)

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