“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
Churchill probably had it right on both counts, as the events this year in Minnesota and California suggest. In Minnesota, the voters’ apparent will was denied for months, and in California the process dictated by the voters may have destroyed the state’s appeal.
In Minnesota, the erstwhile Saturday Night Live comedian, cum Air America talk show host, Al Franken was declared the winner of the Senate seat formerly held by Norm Coleman seven full months after the election had been held. Franken finally won when Coleman, having lost a succession of state appeals over contested vote recounts that ended up in the Minnesota Supreme Court, conceded defeat. Amazingly, Mr. Coleman could have prolonged the final result even further with appeals to the federal courts, but wiser counsels, aided perhaps by dwindling financial support to fund the effort, ultimately prevailed.
Mr. Franken’s ultimate election margin was slightly over 300 votes, which doesn’t sound like much until you compare it to the result in Florida in the 2000 presidential election. There, it will be recalled, Al Gore “lost” to George Bush by a similarly scant number of votes, except that in that election approximately 6 million votes were cast, making the margin of victory for Bush less than one hundredth of a percentage point (.485465 to .485375 for those keeping score).
By comparison, Franken trounced Coleman, since the Minnesota total vote was only three million votes. Hence, Franken beat Coleman by fully twice the margin of the Bush victory in Florida. More importantly, the Minnesota vote count was conducted pursuant to carefully detailed procedures that included independent judicial oversight. Florida’s procedure, such as it was, was invented on the fly, and then was curtailed entirely by the U.S. Supreme Court’s intervention.
Of course, neither result could ever be deemed outside the margin of error, but of the two, Minnesota’s is far less subject to debate. Florida’s vote totals were besmirched by confusing butterfly ballots and by voter roles that disenfranchised perfectly legal voters (because they had the same commonly-held names as ex-felons).
Coleman’s arguments in Minnesota were less impressive and less compelling, essentially amounting to claims of bias in the re-count process (along with errors in determining whether absentee ballots had been properly counted).
In 2000 the ultimate decision was taken from the voters in Florida when the Supreme Court decided to intervene in favor of Mr. Bush. If it wasn’t exactly democratic, the Court’s decision was decisive. In Minnesota, the courts refused to overturn the results, leaving the recounting process intact. In his concession statement, Coleman essentially acknowledged that he had lost. In his concession eight years earlier, Al Gore only acknowledged the supremacy of the Supreme Court.
Was democracy better served by the seven-month wait in Minnesota than it was by the relatively quick decision in the Florida presidential election? Is Al Franken’s seat in the Senate any more legitimate in the eyes of Minnesota voters whose votes were carefully tabulated than the presidency of George Bush was in the eyes of the Florida voters whose votes were never accurately counted?
The California story is less provocative, but it is also far more tragic. This most populous state has what might be called tyranny by the minority, which doesn’t sound democratic, unless you believe in minority rule. The California constitution, as amended by voter initiative (another aspect of democracy that lends credence to that Churchill quote), requires that all budget and taxation measures be approved by a super-majority consisting of two-thirds of both the Assembly and Senate. Thus, even though the state’s Democratic Party controls both bodies by large majorities, the Republicans can block any budget and thwart any tax policy by uniting against such measures.
That result is exactly what the Republicans most effectively brought about earlier this year as the state’s revenues shrunk in the midst of the national recession. Finally, measures were passed to increase revenues (largely through bond issuances that would have passed indebtedness to future generations), subject to voter approval. And here’s where the second Churchill quote comes into play, because the voters, despite accurate warnings from most elected officials that dire consequences would result, defeated all of those measures.
The result was another budget stalemate that threatened the state with bankruptcy. That stalemate was finally resolved earlier this month with the passage of a budget that severely reduces public services across the board throughout the state. Every sector is hit – police and fire protection, education, transportation, medical services, housing, you name it. California, in other words, has become an impoverished state, a land of plenty where little is provided, where much is unavailable or deteriorating or unattended, and where everyone is left to their own devices.
Conservatives claim that the result is what the voters demanded in the first place, to wit: reduced services rather than higher taxes. Liberals decry the super-majority requirement while implicitly acknowledging the reality of the state’s situation.
Voters in the state have yet to feel the impact of the cuts that will become effective almost immediately. Some are already contemplating, if not planning, moves to other states. Others hope for an up-turn in the economy (don’t we all?) while they “hunker down” and hope their individual “nest eggs” will be sufficient to withstand the loss of the services they have grown to expect.
In the long run, California’s experience may validate the democratic ideal. The super-majority requirement was, after all, imposed by the voters. What could be more democratic?
And if the result of the super-majority requirement is a redefinition of the California version of the good life, perhaps that result is consistent with what the voters (those that continue to live in the state, at least) could be said to have wanted all along.
And so it goes in the land where democracy flourishes. Senators get elected, albeit sometimes not right away, presidents are chosen by the Supreme Court, and the people decide what they want to pay for and what they are willing to do without.