Mission Impossible

From the standpoint of its practitioners, the business of politics has never been healthier - or more lucrative.

A s Washington concentrates its attention on the political imperative of dealing forcefully with global terrorists who denounce the American way of life, many other issues quite naturally take lesser priority. Somewhat ironically, two of the issues most likely to be set aside are efforts to shore up the credibility of the American political system that is under attack.

Even before September's devastating attacks, Congress showed little interest in acting promptly on either proposed campaign fund-raising reforms or repairs to the nation's electoral machinery. Campaign finance reform legislation, though passed by the Senate, is on indefinite hold in the House. And in July, when a blue-ribbon panel headed by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford recommended that we overhaul our voting system, the silence was deafening.

Even in the face of evidence that disturbingly large numbers of potential voters are turned off by the political process, there are few signs that a political consensus to change things will develop anytime soon.

Things are clearly amiss. The privilege of the vote hardly seems sacred if nearly as many citizens don't vote as do. Notwithstanding record spending by both presidential campaigns last year, barely half (50.7 percent) of eligible voters bothered to vote in the highly competitive contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, a scant improvement over the 49 percent turnout for the less exciting Bill Clinton versus Bob Dole matchup in 1996, according to Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

The notion that "every vote counts" has been badly tarnished by the post- mortems of the 2000 election, both in Florida and elsewhere, that reveal widespread deficiencies in ballots, equipment and voter registration records. Researchers at the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology report that as many as 6 million ballots were uncounted in last year's incredibly close presidential election, which was decided by a margin of just four votes in the Electoral College after a critical ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The government that results from such low turnouts and apparently flawed elections hardly seems to meet the standard of being "of the people, by the people and for the people" that President Lincoln stated so eloquently a century and a half ago in his Gettysburg address. Nor does it help to advance the notion that democratic elections express the will of the electorate when the occupant of the White House won a half million fewer votes than his principal opponent.

But from the standpoint of its practitioners, the business of politics has never been healthier-or more lucrative. Both the Republican and Democratic parties reported in August that they expect to harvest record amounts of cash to spend on next year's congressional races. And, not surprisingly, reluctance exists on both sides of the aisle in Congress to tighten the so-called "soft money" loophole that makes it possible to raise huge sums for both parties without exceeding the limits that apply to gifts made directly to candidates. If our electoral system has been knocked off the rails, it hasn't happened by accident, says Alex Keyssar, author of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, (Basic Books, 1997). It has deliberately been altered by a class of full-time professionals that includes not just those who run for political office, but the consultants and fund-raisers who assist them and the political journalists who gain status and attract audiences by covering their stories.

Accordingly, notes Keyssar, state and county officials are reluctant to cede control over their local election machinery, and Congress does not appear eager to come up with the funds-estimated at $1 billion to $2 billion-that the Carter-Ford commission estimates is needed to modernize antiquated voting equipment.

"As political professionals learned long ago, an electorate that is predictable in size and composition is generally far preferable to large turnouts and mass participation," says Keyssar, a professor of history and social policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "The two major parties are in the business of winning elections rather than promoting democracy, and elections can be won by disenfranchising opponents, making it procedurally difficult for them to vote or not counting their vote at all," he adds. Getting politicians to reform a system that generally works to their benefit was never going to be easy. Now, with the public's concern focused on the life-and-death issues of countering a formidable threat from foreign forces, domestic political reforms can safely be assigned to the back burner. But if he were speaking at Gettysburg today, a disillusioned Lincoln would have to refer to a government of, for and by the political professionals.


Dick Kirschten is a contributing editor for National Journal. Contact him at dkirschten@govexec.com.
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