US Elections 2000: "Deep"
vs. "Shallow" Democracy
It has always been my intention that EPIC-Online.net
serve an international audience. For that reason, I have
erred on the side of not including news of the recent,
long-suffering Presidential election, yet to be decided
as I write. (It may be more than a week away from resolution
since the US Supreme Court has agreed to consider the
effect of a 113-year old Federal statute on the election
in Florida.) It is hard to miss in any event, and the
election is very much on my mind.
There is one aspect of the Florida situation
that has occupied much of my thinking. There is a very
real sense in which the way the election was conducted
nearly three weeks ago has deprived certain voters of
their voice in American public affairs. But something
has bothered me about this for a time, and I think I now
know what it is.
That some voters' votes will not count is
certainly the case in Florida for those who couldn't follow
the "butterfly ballot," whose voting machine
did not fully punch out a chad, or who received bad advice
on election day. It is particularly true for those military
personnel who voted under a system that requires a post
mark, when military mail, especially in a combat zone,
is not customarily post marked.
I have come to think, however, that what
is at issue here is not just whether their votes a few
weeks ago count, but whether these individual voters are
being deprived of their democratic rights in a "deep"
or a "shallow" sense. "Deep"? "Shallow"?
Let me set up a hypothetical to demonstrate the difference
between deep and shallow democracy before defining them.
Suppose the contested counties held an open
debate over how much money to spend on the elections process.
Some complained about antiquated voting equipment; others
complained that the elderly could not read the ballot;
and still others argued for paid and well-trained bureaucrats
instead of volunteers staffing the polling places.
It is certainly true that there could
have been such complaints and arguments unless, I suppose,
all that election equipment went out of date just this
year, the elderly became strangely handicapped only this
year, and the previously adequate volunteer training proved
mysteriously ineffective, again only this year. So, suppose
further that some degree of consensus was reached to maintain
the status quothat the government had higher priorities
for this term, for example, and they'd take another look
at it for the 2004 elections.
Such debate almost certainly never occurred, at least
not openly. But, in a representative democracy, the voters
in Florida had the power at all times to ensure that it
had reliable, fair voting processes. They had a legislature
that voted, presumably after some deliberation and debate,
to set some time-certain to conclude the vote tally. They
had elected local governments that funded, equipped, and
staffed the processes. That truly effective polling was
not the result was almost certainly a choice.
The fact that this election and its processes failed,
then, is less a result of unfairness than incompetence.
But their failure is the result of an incompetence that
has been voted into office by the very people complaining
of the unfairness.
The essence of ethics and the policies that stem from
them is that individuals are responsible for the choices
they make, including the decisions made by their duly
elected representatives. This is what distinguishes "deep"
from "shallow" democracy. Without such responsibility,
we are no longer talking in terms of ethics. In a shallow
sense, then, certain voters may have been treated unfairly.
But this is an unfairness in much the same sense that
life itself is unfairso long as their disenfranchisement
was merely the luck of the "incompetence draw."
This conclusion applies to those who couldn't follow
the butterfly ballot designed precisely to aid the elderly.
And, it breaks my heart to say, it also applies to the
overseas military vote. If the voters of the State of
Florida with its large military active and retired populations
elect legislators who require a post mark for overseas
voters, including the military, and don't have the experience
or foresight to determine that there is often no post
mark for the military voter, then, in a deep sense, the
voters have gotten what they voted for.
In all cases, the voters' lack of attention and their
representatives' incompetence should not hold the rest
of the country hostage after the times set by Federal
or state law. Nor should existing rules be changed after
the fact. Let Florida fix its processes for the next
What would be a violation of "deep" democracy?
Here, disenfranchisement on the basis of race, creed,
or gender, or systemic fraud, would be unfair in a deep
sense. It is tempting to include the elderly as such a
disadvantaged group, but for the fact that, in the US
at least, the elderly are widely seen to be a powerful
voting group of people. Certainly the AARP is an adequate
voice, federal subsidies and all, to argue for "elder-friendly"
voting. It would even be in its own self-interest to do
Florida's incompetence has cast a long pall over the
US 2000 election for President, though I suspect that
few other states would stand up to similarly-close scrutiny.
My guess is that the 1887 Federal statute requiring that
each election for Federal office be decided on rules set
before the election itself was designed to avoid
precisely this situation, at least in part.
Still, this is a great country, quite aside from its
government; it will survive whichever politician ends
up in office, and however slender his mantle. Moreover,
this pain will have been worthwhile if we learn from
it. If we now understand the significance of each
and every vote, then perhaps we have also learned that
the voting processes must be worthy of the sacredness
of the votes themselves. If not, then, in the words of
the Dutch proverb: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool
me twice, shame on me."
Kenneth W. Johnson
Comments or suggestions