Florida's election meltdown in 2000 was a one-off, a bizarre deviation from the exemplary norm of American democracy. If the fiasco contained a lesson, it was that the old punch card voting machines (of chad fame) were past due for replacement by newer, more efficient electronic models. Or so the conventional wisdom had it at the time.
In reality, the corruption, incompetence, and bare-knuckle partisanship on such vivid display in Florida stood in a long, inglorious American tradition. If there were problems with the voting machines used in 2000—as there undoubtedly were—that was less a cause than a symptom of a much graver malady—the rot at the very core of the United States' electoral system. Swapping out the machines did nothing to remedy this deeper problem, and indeed introduced a whole host of new troubles.
"People have been manipulating and stealing votes more or less since the dawn of the republic," writes Andrew Gumbel, author of the excellent Steal This Vote,a book that, among other things, recounts the eventful history of electoral shenanigans in the United States from the Constitution to the 2004 presidential election. In Gumbel's account, both parties are to blame for creating and sustaining a political environment rife with perverse incentives for fraud, manipulation, and the maintenance of a dysfunctional status quo. And until this culture is fundamentally reformed, he argues, insecure machines, purged voter rolls, missing ballots, unequal access to the polls, and widespread disenfranchisement will remain standard features of U.S. elections.
Gumbel, an award-winning U.S. correspondent for the London Independent, was one of the first journalists to sound the alarm about electronic voting machines. He recently spoke with Mother Jones by phone from his home in southern California.
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