Ballot Boxing

Why are some voters urged and others purged?

Still looking for the perfect coda to the last presidential election? Here's one. Katherine Harris forgot to sign her absentee ballot when she voted in Longboat Key's last local election.

The obvious irony is that as Florida's secretary of state, Harris oversaw the hotly disputed ballot count that ultimately handed George W. Bush Florida's 25 electoral votes and, hence, the presidency. The AP reported that she felt terrible about the oversight and quoted her as saying, "I know how important voting is."

Harris didn't use the phrase, it's safe to say, to remind us of the brutal electoral calculus that decided the last presidential election or of the importance, in a strictly partisan and strategic sense, of each and every vote for next fall's electoral debacle. The comment was meant rather as an expression of civic idealism. Harris was expressing her fealty to the institution of voting itself — to its symbolic importance in a country where leaders are elected more or less democratically, where every citizen of legal age has exactly one vote, whether rich or poor, fifth-generation American or a freshly minted one.

In this respect, Harris was hitting a note we are likely to hear a lot in the months ahead. If elections served no other purpose, they would remind us of the importance of voting in elections. No election cycle ever passes without a chorus of public officials, activists and simple scolds lamenting the refusal of so many to exercise their right to vote — to spend the wondrous political capital that's been bestowed on them.

Often forgotten in this frenzy of hand-wringing and Rock-the-Voting are those people who already want to vote but can't. For hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens, the barrier to voting is legal — they live in a state where a voter's eligibility can be withdrawn on the basis of various criminal convictions.

More alarming still, many more thousands of voters are disenfranchised either erroneously or due to sheer partisan calumny.

The two articles that follow look at voting from two very different angles. Greg Palast — whose reporting on irregularities with the last presidential election has made him something of a hero among progressives — raises questions about the fairness and integrity of the voting process itself. In contrast, Catherine Seipp, a contributor to the conservative National Review among other publications, probes our gung-ho desire to extend the voting franchise to as many people as possible. In so doing, she could be accused of simply echoing familiar reactionary anxieties about democratic process — about the wisdom of majoritarian rule — but to do so risks overlooking the fact that lots of people, moderates and liberals included, share her concern about the political ignorance of many voters.

Read in conjunction, Palast and Seipp's articles raise the question: Why are some voters being aggressively urged to vote at the same time that so many other voters are being purged from their rolls?

—David Bramer

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