Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Voting Here and There

I just cast my vote in the US presidential election. For the past two and a half decades, I’ve been voting by absentee ballot from my home here in Helsinki. In the past, I have done this by marking an overlarge stiff paper ballot sent from my birthplace in Georgia.

This election cycle, I decided instead to use the “electronic” option, which is available for UOCAVA voters. (For the record, UOCAVA - a term that could not be more unlovely if it came from the forges of Hell itself - stands for Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.)

“Electronic” in this case means that, as an UOCAVA voter, I can now download my ballot from a website, print it out, mark it, and enclose it in a blank envelope (provided by myself). I then enclose that, with a signed oath, in a second envelope (again, provided by myself – I’m saving the State of Georgia some money here), before mailing the whole thing to my hometown back in Georgia.

Sadly, while I’m doing all this I’m fully aware that my vote will not matter anyway. Not one bit. Zilch. It will be essentially ignored. Still, I’m glad to do it out of principle and a sense of duty. I feel better knowing at least I tried to have my voice heard.

Non-Americans probably don’t realize how voting works in the U.S. Of course, like in most other countries, Finland included, voting takes place locally. I vote in my home county in North Georgia, where I am still a registered voter though I haven’t lived there since I was 18. In theory, I could vote for local offices like the county sheriff or school superintendent. In practice, I only cast votes for national offices (presidency and congress), because I don’t think it’s fair to influence (as if) local issues I really don’t follow. (As a UOCAVA voter, I’m allowed to vote only for national offices, which is fine by me.)

While county-based voting makes supreme sense when you live in the county where you vote, it’s a bit odd for long-term expats who, like me, have only the flimsiest connection with their “voting homes”. I’ll never live in Gilmer County again, but as a voter, I’m stuck there for the rest of my life. That is why my vote will never count.

Finns also vote locally, but those living overseas are not tied to their home piiri. In late 1981, when Finland was preparing to elect its first new president in 25 years, my future wife and I were traveling in Mexico. To ensure she wouldn’t miss her chance to do her civic duty, we stopped by the Finnish embassy in Mexico City so she could vote. She simply showed up there, out of the blue, presented her Finnish passport and voted. It’s not an option enjoyed by us Americans overseas.

The consequence of being forced to vote in Georgia is, I’ll say it again, my vote won’t count. This form of, what you might call, personal voter “nullification” may be unique to America and can be traced directly back to the Founding Fathers.

Since the US Constitution was adopted in 1789, the US has elected presidents through an “Electoral College”, 538 men and women who do the actual voting for president. It is these electors that we mere citizens will technically be voting for this November 6th.

The whole idea is an obsolete holdover from the 18th century. Inserting 538 “middlemen” into the process is unnecessary enough, but it also dilutes democracy. Condensing the preferences of some 130 million voters into only 538 votes that really count doesn’t exactly meet the standard of one-person-one-vote.

What makes the system truly undemocratic, though, is the way the individual states choose those 538 electors. All but two states use the self-described “winner takes all” approach. Georgia has 16 votes in the Electoral College, all of which will go to one candidate. Georgia voters will effectively select 16 Republican electors or 16 Democratic electors, nothing in between. It’s an either/or proposition. No shades of grey here.

Of course, that’s only hypothetical. In reality, Georgia being Georgia, there is only one possible outcome  sixteen Georgians will officially cast votes for Mitt Romney and no one will vote for Barack Obama.

This is because Georgia in political terms is a solidly red state. That doesn’t mean that, as it would in the rest of the world, Georgia stands in proletariat solidity with the likes of Hugo Chávez. In exceptional America, “red” means politically conservative and “blue” means liberal, in other words, Republican and Democratic. The distinction has not always been so stark as it is now.

When I was growing up, Georgia was practically a one-party state, and that party was Democratic. This was a legacy of the Civil War, already a century in the past. The Republican Party had been the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Reconstruction, so the old Confederacy naturally gravitated toward the Democratic Party, and stayed with it.

One thing that seems safe to say about Southerners is that many of them know how to hold a grudge, especially when it comes to things like defeat on the battlefield and the emancipation of human property. At least that would explain how, in the 25 elections held between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Georgia consistently thumbed its nose at Lincoln's Grand Old Party and gave its electoral votes to Democrats, every single time.

(The exception to this anti-Republican reaction was the half dozen counties in the mountains, including my home county, which didn’t much support secession and after the war voted Republican long before the rest of Georgia did.)

That unwaveringly conservative Georgia could vote unwaveringly for the party that eventually gave us Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been due to the schizophrenic nature of the Democratic Party, which in the past has been happy to accommodate both Northern liberals and Southern conservatives and segregationists. That changed as Democrats started enacting Civil Rights laws and the right wing of the party began defecting to the GOP. Finally, the Republican Party had a chance to take over Georgia, and it did big time.

John Kennedy was the last Democrat Georgia voted for who wasn’t a Southerner (namely native-son Jimmy Carter, both times, and Bill Clinton, but only for his first term). Otherwise, it’s been only Republicans since 1964, except when the Peach State did itself proud by voting for raging, hard-core segregationist Independent George Wallace. Jesus Christ!

This is why, it’s dead certain that Georgia will go Republican again, and why my vote for Barack Obama will count for nothing in the Electoral College.

Maybe I shouldn’t complain, though. Due to the way the Electoral College distorts elections, a lot of Republican votes will also be nullified. For example, Republican voters in Democratic bastions California and New York (together, 84 electoral votes), might as well stay home. The way it adds up in the current election, the quirky math of the Electoral College gives Mitt Romney fewer chances of winning the majority of those 538 votes. I guess we can thank the Constitution for that.

Finland used to have its own Electoral College, which was abandoned in 1994. Elections here are now based purely on the popular vote, which is the most straightforward way to measure the will of the people. That is kind of obvious.

Despite the overall advantage that the Electoral College gives Barack Obama this time around, I would love to see it abolished. If the US had relied on a simple tally of votes back in 2000, George W. Bush would never have been president, and things, well, things might have turned out very differently. 


  1. The only sane and fair way to elect someone to any office is majority vote. It's crazy that a candidate who gets the fewest votes can ascend to office. It's also maddening that your vote doesn't count at all due to the happenstance of where you happen to cast your vote. It's bats!

    I like pointing out to Republicans that they are the party of hatred, intolerance, and racism. So the Democrats of the post-Civil War days were racist, they say. Fair enough. But where do those same racists and hate-mongers take refuge in modern times? The Republican Party.

  2. The electoral college in the US has its uses in limiting the effects of election fraud in one state.

    The problem of cast votes not counting is that of winner-takes-all system. If the electoral college votes were awarded based on ratio, not only would all n (+-k, k<<n) votes count as a seat in electoral college (which would be a better approximation of majority vote), but it would allow the two-patry system to evolve to a real multi-party system. With winner-takes-all, it's practically impossible. Sure, the UK managed it but it took some 25 years and a lot less divisive system.