Lessons from Florida

MANY lessons flow from the deadlocked US presidential election, which is beginning to look like something out of Never-Never Land. One major lesson for the United States of America is that pride goes before a fall.

Having lectured other countries for decades on how to conduct democratic elections, US politicians are being lampooned by the media in dozens of countries, including the US itself. The satirical US journal, The Onion, carried two rib-tickling lampoons the other day.

One is headlined “Serbia deploys peace-keeping forces in US’’. It says Serbian President Kostunica has deployed more than 30,000 peace-keeping troops in the US, pledging full support to the troubled American nation as it struggles to establish democracy.

“We must do all we can to support free elections in America and allow democracy to gain a foothold there,’’ Kostunica said.

Another satirical item takes off on the fact that Bush as governor of Texas has sanctioned a record number of executions of prisoners on Death Row. The headline: “Bush executes 253 New Mexico Democrats.’’

The story: New Mexico’s five electoral votes swung back to George Bush after he executed 253 New Mexico Democrats visiting Texas. With their deaths, the votes of these Al-Gore backing Democrats were declared ineligible, wiping out the Democratic candidate’s 252-vote victory margin in the state. “We express great sorrow for the families of the condemned,” said Karl Rove, Bush’s senior strategist.

“We must keep in mind however that these are not innocent people we’re talking about here. These individuals were guilty of a variety of crimes ranging from jay-walking to reckless endangerment of pedestrians’ lives through the inappropriate use of rollerblades.”

Bush is quoted as saying, “All 253 individuals were found guilty in a court of law. They were given a fair 30-minute trial and handed a punishment commensurate with their misdeeds. Blatant disregard for the law may be tolerated elsewhere but not in the great state of Texas. Or states close to Texas.”

It is a sign of a mature democracy that it is able to laugh at itself. Forget all the sanctimonious statements of politicians saying American citizens are worried by the uncertainty of the election. In truth, Americans love the twists and turns of the presidential race, which has become the most-watched serial on TV these days.

Amidst the welter of accusations, one lesson stands out. Decentralised electoral systems are a recipe for confusion, contradictions, lack of uniform norms, and lack of fairness.

In most countries Gore would be a clear winner, since he has a majority of the popular vote. But the federal constitutional history of the US has created a series of quirks. First, the President is elected indirectly by an electoral college, and so some states become more important than others.

Second, there is no central election authority. Each state has its own electoral laws, rules, and appeal systems. Uniformity does not exist even within states. Counties are authorised to devise their own procedures.

The result is a bewildering diversity of electoral systems that cannot but lead to controversy and outrage in a close election. Within Florida, four different voting systems co-exist in different counties: punched ballots, ballots where you shade in a square box next to each candidate’s name, ballots where you tick your preference, and electronic voting machines. Counties are free to decide the design of their ballot papers.

This led to the now infamous butterfly pattern in ballots in Palm Beach county, which misled Al Gore supporters into voting for Pat Buchanan. Decisions on a manual recount were taken county by county, not at the state level.

And the standard for deciding whether a ballot was valid (the extent of indentation or separation of a chad) was also left to the discretion of each county. Palm Beach county applied a stricter standard than Broward County, and Gore believes this cost him victory, and is going to court over it.

Americans are proud of their historical tradition of strong powers for states and counties. But this pride is seriously misplaced in a federal election. Equality before the law is a fundamental democratic principle, and equality is impossible when every county and state can have different electoral procedures and standards.

India has very serious problems like booth-capturing and bogus voting. Yet in one respect it is fairer and saner than the US. It has a single, independent Election Commission, dedicated to the proposition that uniformity and equality of electoral procedure is fundamental for fairness.

No state government or zilla parishad can devise its own election procedures, ballots, or anything else. The Election Commission lays down uniform norms for the whole country.

In the US, a repoll seems justified in the county with the butterfly ballot, which according to some experts violates state law on ballot design. But a repoll is impossible since election dates are set by Congress.

Separately, the Supreme Court of Florida set an arbitrary deadline for hand-counting which proved impossible to achieve in two counties, to Gore’s outrage. Here again vital powers were spread over too many authorities.

In India the Election Commission decides election dates. It does not set artificial deadlines for counting but continues counting till convinced that the outcome is fair. It orders repolling wherever necessary. Such integrated supervision means that India does not suffer from the US disease of diverse institutions mucking up the uniformity that is essential for fairness.

The US election also shows that the world’s technical superpower has the pathetic electoral technology. The punching machines used in Florida were designed a century ago, and suffer from mechanical flaws (some do not punch a clean hole).

The US needs to learn a few things from India. It needs an independent Election Commission integrating all the powers currently spread over diverse authorities. It also needs a modern electronic voting system where voters just press a button, can erase errors and make corrections without having their votes invalidated. Overseas ballots should come in by internet.

Alas, US loyalty to a decentralised system designed for a different century remains so strong that it will probably refuse to change. Such is the power of inertia. India is not alone in being knowledge-proof.

What do you think?