July 14, 2004

Why This Bugs Me

Thinking about my outburst in my previous post, I think there are two things that really bother me about the floating of the proposal to delay elections in the event of a terrorist attack, even though we know perfectly well a delay is not going to happen.

(1) As I said, it shows the low regard in which our government seems to hold democracy. It's not inherently a bad thing that someone in the government thought about the impact an attack could have on elections. It's a bad thing that he didn't think, "What can we do to ensure that the election proceeds as smoothly as possible, with minimum disruption?" but instead "How can we cancel the election if this happens?" And that this particular proposal then made it up through the hierarchy unchanged. Shouldn't Tom Ridge have sent it back, saying, "We don't cancel elections if we can help it. Think of some alternate plans"?

(Also, why is the National Election Assistance guy reporting to Homeland Security?)

(2) Much, much worse: It shows how much we've been infantilized in the face of terrorism. As has been pointed out by others, we held elections in the face of two wars (1864 and 1944) that threatened the existence of America itself. Terrorism doesn't do that. But it's terrorism that makes us cry, "What if terrorism happens? How could we possibly hold an election in the face of terrorism?" That's just pathetic. We should be resolving, up front, that if there is a terrorist attack on Election Day more of us will vote than ever before. Terrorists shouldn't be able to scare us away from democracy.

One of my friends (and a few bloggers) said to me, "What if there's a terrorist attack on election day in SE Florida?" And it's disturbing to think that an attack might interfere with people voting. But terrorism isn't the only thing that can do that. In comments here, Christopher Ball makes this comment:

A contingency plan is worth considering, but it seems that this authority could be delegated to the state in which the event occurred. This might also be useful if severely disruptive weather occured during an election.

Well, I'm not happy about delegating authority to the states--remember when the Florida Legislature was preparing to appoint a pro-Bush slate of electors--but this raises the question--why do we need a contingency plan for terrorism but not one for weather, or electric blackouts, or malfunctioning voting machines? What makes terrorism so special? A hurricane might disrupt voting in Florida [UPDATE: This probably reflects profound ignorance of when hurricane season is], or an earthquake might disrupt voting in California, much more comprehensively than most terrorist attacks. But we treat terrorism as though it's some uniquely horrific disaster worthy of bringing the country to a halt.

And I think this infantilization is deliberate. We could have tried to show that we were stronger than the terrorists by refusing to let them disrupt our liberties. Instead we were treated to some ridiculous clampdowns that don't make us safer at all (note--I'm not saying all post-9/11 security reforms are ridiculous, I'll give examples later), scaremongering about chemical weapons that, outside of massive bombardments, have never killed as many people as Great White, and completely unspecific terror warnings that serve no purpose other than to frighten and to grab the headlines. The Bush Administration has used this climate of fear to political advantage, and it's left the country much weaker and more divided than it needed to be.

A couple more posts of shrillness on the way, but I hope to get back to the regular menu of analytic philosophy and stupid jokes soon.

Posted by Matt Weiner at July 14, 2004 11:59 AM

I think that we've (completely) missed the reason why the Bush administration has begun to float the idea of delaying the election in light of terrorist attacks.

The Bush administration wants us to think that they fear for the safety of millions of American voters. They cite this as a reason to consider delaying the vote.

The real reason for considering delaying election day is that the Bush administration wants to show how competent it is in fighting terrorism, (what they consider) the bane of every American's existence. After all, an underlying re-election campaign slogan of the Bush/Cheney ticket is "who can fight the terroist evil doers better than us?"

I guess this is where Dick C. comes in and says, "hey Joe, go f#@& yourself!"

Posted by: Joe at July 16, 2004 07:05 AM

I think there's a element of opportunism at work. People are more likely to give up power now when they're afraid of a terrorist attack. I doubt the government would need to exploit the postponement rules this year. A major attack would probably be a boon for the Republicans anyway. It would be to their advantage to get as many hysterical voters to the polls as possible in the aftermath.

However, this administration thinks long term. Radical conservatives are quite open about their intentions to remake America and its institutions from the inside out. They want to set as may precedents as possible while they think they can get away with it.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein at July 16, 2004 12:56 PM

Right--I forgot to mention another reason that I'm not reassured by Kevin's argument that it won't happen in time for this election. Namely, that it might happen in time for the next one.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at July 17, 2004 11:29 AM

Hate to break it to you like this, but states are and always have been in control of elections. This is an institutional safeguard. It wouldn't do to allow the federal government to manage federal elections. The states run elections, so the federal government can't corrupt them, and the feds (ostensibly) make sure states don't deny voting rights to anyone.

And you are right about natural disasters. Personally, I'm worried about a blackout in the Northeast. Or a little girl who falls down a well.

Posted by: Kelly Higgins at July 23, 2004 12:10 AM

A friend sent me this... thought you all would find it interesting.

> Lincoln on the 1864 Presidential Election
> Response to a Serenade
> November 10, 1864
> It has long been a grave question whether any government, not too
> strong for the liberties of its people, can be strong enough to
> maintain its own existence in great emergencies.
> On this point the present rebellion brought our republic to a
> severe test; and a presidential election occurring in regular
> course during the rebellion added not a little to the strain. If
> the loyal people, united, were put to the utmost of their strength
> by the rebellion, must they not fail when divided, and partially
> paralized (sic), by a political war among themselves?
> But the election was a necessity.
> We can not have free government without elections; and if the
> rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national
> election it might fairly claim to have already conquered and
> ruined us. The strife of the election is but human-nature
> practically applied to the facts of the case. What has occurred in
> this case, must ever recur in similar cases. Human-nature will not
> change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men
> of this, we shall have as weak, and as strong; as silly and as
> wise; as bad and good. Let us, therefore, study the incidents of
> this, as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as
> wrongs to be revenged.
> But the election, along with its incidental, and undesirable
> strife, has done good too. It has demonstrated that a people's
> government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a
> great civil war. Until now it has not been known to the world that
> this was a possibility. It shows that, even among candidates of
> the same party, he who is most devoted to the Union, and most
> opposed to treason, can receive most of the people's votes. It
> shows also, to the extent yet known, that we have more men now,
> than we had when the war began. Gold is good in its place; but
> living, brave, patriotic men, are better than gold.

Posted by: Lisa S at July 28, 2004 07:50 AM