Al (Franken) Gets His Wish

by kris bishop on January 7, 2009

by Kimberley Coles, author of new UMP release Democratic Designs: International Intervention and Electoral Practices in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina

Al (Franken) gets his wish

Al (Laddin) gets his wish

Minnesota’s ongoing – and to some, ludicrous – electoral recount saga between Al Franken and Norm Coleman is actually a well-trodden electoral sorrow story.  The case of the 171 uncounted ballots “discovered” on December 2nd, 28 days after the election, is just a singular episode in the larger drama, but one variously interpreted as state sponsored fraud, an embarrassment, or, more rarely, as within an acceptable margin of error (0.000065, 171 out of about 2.6 million or so). An alternative interpretation of both the episode and the larger drama is one that notes the social and
technical impossibility of capturing voter will.

Electoral laments are actually ubiquitous and include: poorly designed ballots making it hard for voters to realize their “intent,” indirect voting (such as the Electoral College system) confounding voter will, politicized constituency boundaries, declining voter turn-out, and the corrupting influence of money. Even reforms such as electronic voting schemes – hailed as a mechanism for improved efficiency and accuracy in result tabulation – suffer from proprietary software and hacker fraud.  Although these stories are peculiarly American, similar stories can be heard around the globe.

The United States is far from the only country grappling with the pragmatics of running free and fair, democratic elections.  Mexico in 2006 saw a close presidential race, massive protests claiming fraud, and the rejection of the legitimacy of the announced winner.  Bosnia-Herzegovina in the decade after the 1995 peace treaty ending the wars of dissolution of Yugoslavia, saw voter turnout decline nearly 30%, dealt with systematic voter and political party fraud as well as threats of electoral boycotts, and implemented at least four different electoral systems as electoral bureaucrats attempted to implement and encourage “democratic values” through policy design.

At moments of perceived democratic crisis, electoral reformers reach out to technology, numbers, legal statues, and other “neutral” and “universal” actors.  The outreach to non-social actors is part of a cultural shoringup of the legitimacy of the democratic process. Reforms take place with the intent of more accurately measuring “voter will,” taking it as a single unit that can be measured as a fixed, static factoid.  But, conceptualizing voter will in this way does a disservice to the complexity and sociality of understanding and giving meaning to politics and governance.

There are many ways to reduce noise around the measurement of voter will, both in marking and in counting ballots. A primary way this is done throughout democratic systems is to invest resources in voter education; voters need to be taught how to express their will. “How to vote” campaigns aim to reduce errors in marking ballots.   If voters mark their intent unclearly or in unsanctioned ways, voter will is tainted. A proportion of voters of course have trouble expressing their intent on a ballot – resulting in unknown (to the voter) disenfranchisement.  These invalid votes could signal the failure of education but are also symptomatic of the difficulty that exists in translating voices into an electoral unit.  This is as true for the blank or empty vote interpreted as “a protest” as it is for the pragmatic error (i.e., “voter confusion”) of making an X too big and thus marking two candidates instead of one.  It is as difficult to capture voter will politically as it is aesthetically.

Digital technology has been the most recent innovation in ballot marking and ballot counting.  Software and GUI interfaces and touchscreens have the ability to streamline voter voices; errors are not allowed in marking because the computer will only allow you to pick, for example, two out of the four candidates.  A voter may not pick five candidates.  They may not nullify their vote.  There is no room for error.  This does not remove error though; it simply shifts and displaces errors to another social location — the computer system’s back-end.   The back-end collects and acts upon the voter voice, but at times the electricity fails, the wrong ballot is loaded, the computer crashes, or the software blackbox suffers from tampering.  In the United States, we have shifted the location of voter error from chads to the socio-political digital literacy gap.

Reform increasingly attempts to erase and remove sociality from the electoral process.  Ignoring and erasing sociality from practice and interpretation is not only impossible, but leads to further compressions of experience as lived and practiced by citizens.  The effect is often disenchantment despite an electoral system’s better efficacy as capturing something called “voter will” but that is increasingly distant from the complexity of social existence.

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Click here to read more about Kimberley Coles’ DEMOCRATIC DESIGNS: INTERNATIONAL INTERVENTION AND ELECTORAL PRACTICES IN POSTWAR BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA.

*Some text above is reprinted from “Electoral Reform and the Will of the Electorate,” Anthropology News, Vol 49, issue 8with the permission of the American Anthropological Association.” Copyright 2008 American Anthropological Association.

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