Friday, April 12, 2013

Ballot Cops, Part 1: When governments fail their electorate

Photo: Freedigitalphotos

An election is meant to be a peaceful activity where every citizen’s voice counts. In order to guarantee this, its methods must be fair and dependable. However, the unreliability of manual voting can often take turns for the worse and prompt citizens to device their own methods to safeguard the transparency of their political future, often turning them into tools of oppression. The US has spent a long time trying to get rid of so-called ‘ballot cops’, but recurring instances of fraud keep pushing people into taking electoral justice into their own hands.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy won the country’s presidency by the narrowest margin in all of the 20th century. Certain sectors attributed this victory to voter fraud in Illinois and Texas, so in 1964 the Republican National Committee launched Operation Red-Eye, a nationwide anti-fraud campaign in order to prevent fraud during the next elections. Tens of thousands of volunteers were recruited to show up at polling stations and use cameras, two-way radios, and calls to Republican-friendly sheriffs to check whether attendants at the polling place were eligible to vote.

“Ballot security” programs became commonplace over the years, but they came to a halt in 1981, when the Democratic National Committee filed a federal suit against the RNC for violating the Voting Rights Act, as ‘anti-fraud’ checks were mostly aimed at minority voters. The RNC agreed to end all “ballot security” programs in 1982, but they resurfaced 30 years later under a different guise, when a group of Texans took it upon themselves to check the present state of polling places in their constituencies. What they found shocked them profoundly.

The group not only found that poll workers were not sufficiently prepared for their jobs, but they also witnessed blatant cases of voter impersonation. Some people were brazen enough as to present multiple registration cards, and if one of them was determined to have already voted, they would just pull out another one until they were allowed to vote. This prompted them to establish an army of sorts that has aimed to stop electoral fraud but has made the news not for their example of good citizenship, but for alleged voter intimidation. The Knight Street Patriots, as they are now called, have been a harmful attempt at a solution to illegalities, but their very existence points at a disturbing problem in the American democratic system.

It is upsetting that some citizens feel the need to becoming their own watchmen because the government has failed them and their elections do not represent their will. These citizens are representative of political groups whose ideology gets on the way, meaning that their so-called “anti-fraud” campaigns are not completely transparent, and end up causing more harm than good.

The way to combat these biased attempts at restoring democracy is not simply to forbid them, but to find the root of people’s disbelief in their institutions. What the Knight Street Patriots saw at the polling places that prompted them to act is very real, and it is a reasonable cause for rage. However, having someone stand at a polling station and try to establish who is a real voter and who is not with very rudimentary and prejudiced methods is definitely not going to help. The problem is not a lack of watchmen around the polling stations, but a lack of a robust system that eliminates altogether identity theft, ballot stuffing, and dead people voting. Of course, including technology with biometric authentication would help to solve this problem and do away with ballot cops.

Adopting a safe and reliable electoral method instead of letting citizens adopt illegitimate control measures is the sensible solution. After all, it is the government’s duty to safeguard democracy, and improving the way elections are carried out is the best way to do so.