America Wheezing

That's the sound of our electoral process, and it's panic inducing.

I’m going to vote in our stupid new primary, but I’m pissed off because for the first time in my voting life, I’m being disenfranchised from certain races.

Sure, I get some choice, but I can’t play the field as I am used to doing, and as I believe I have a right to do (the U.S. Supreme Court and Antonin Scalia aside).

The new primary system—wherein you must choose either one party’s ballot or vote only in nonpartisan races—might not make a huge difference for many people, particularly those who either strongly identify with a party or who live in areas dominated by one party. Dyed-in-the-wool Libertarians, Seattle Democrats, and Bellevue Republicans will feel little difference.

Symbolically, however, it’s a huge slap in the face at the state’s spirit of voter independence. And it tangibly hurts ticket splitters, crossover voters, independents, and those who live in swing districts or areas where they are in a political minority.

Case in point: I live in a Republican- leaning suburban swing district and, from time to time, cast a lesser-of-two-evils GOP vote in the primary. This year, if I want a say in the primary’s most important race to help choose the Democratic nominee for governor—Ron Sims or Christine Gregoire—I’ll have to take that party’s ballot and my vote will only count in Democratic races. That means I’ll have to forgo having any influence in the hotly contested Republican race for state representative in my district. I can vote globally in the governor’s race but must sacrifice voting locally to do so.

It’s a small difference for some voters, but small differences matter to people who cast their votes, and as we know from painful experience in 2000, small differences can change the course of empires, as did a few hundred votes in Florida and New Mexico.

Voting in a democracy ought to be like breathing: a vital function that you barely notice. When things go well, you’re not conscious of every breath you take, and life can proceed. When you’re unwell—with congestion coming on, a cough, or an asthma attack—the very awareness of a breathing problem can lead to panic. That can exacerbate the problem. We’re at a time in this country where you can no longer take voting itself for granted. We’re entering a period during which we have to be conscious of who votes and how our votes are counted. If the poet Walt Whitman were alive today, he wouldn’t hear America singing, he’d hear it wheezing.

The elimination of Washington’s “blanket primary,” in which we were permitted to cross party lines from race to race on a single ballot, is just a tiny part of the tickle in our lungs, and things are likely to get more confusing. On the November general-election ballot will be I-872, the initiative to change the primary system to one similar to the so-called Louisiana system. Under its provisions, the top two vote getters in the primary, regardless of party, would advance to the general election. The upside is that the primary would be open, and the two most popular candidates would advance; the downside is that small parties, like the Greens or Libertarians, would virtually disappear from the general-election ballot—the election that actually counts. And in some cases, your choice would be between two candidates from the same party and no other.

If I-872 passes, it will certainly be challenged by the political parties, who might also opt to dump the primary altogether and return to the good old days of handpicking candidates at conventions. The only difference: The back rooms might be smoke-free.

The picture gets even worse when looking at broader electoral reforms, such as electronic voting, updating punch-card systems, updating the voter rolls, handling and recounting ballots—the list is endless. Details continue to trip up officials in this state and the other 49. Take the fact that King County officials recently discovered that absentee ballots couldn’t be returned by mail for the standard 37 cents because they weigh too much, requiring 60 cents in postage. No one, apparently, used a postage scale in figuring out something this basic.

The Washington Post last Sunday, Sept. 5, surveyed a multitude of potential problems with the upcoming election, problems of special concern if the presidential election is close but which also call into question the fundamental fairness and security of the overall system. The story quoted pundit Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute as saying, “We’ve taken a high level of unease, distrust, and skepticism about the sanctity of the voting system from 2000 and we’ve poured gasoline on the fire. If the election is close, there’s going to be ample reason for the losers to point at a variety of issues.” Already, campaigns are assembling their legal teams to challenge questionable results, and it seems certain that even more races will wind up being decided in courts.

For liberals, election anxiety is made worse by the recent turn of the Kerry campaign and the latest polls that show him to be the clear underdog. Can you feel your stress level rising as we enter the home stretch? Are you feeling like a bipolar Ping-Pong ball? Even Bill Clinton was having chest pains.

I only have one suggestion to help see you through the next couple months, let alone the next four years: Don’t calibrate your sanity to the outcome of this election or any other. Be passionate, be angry, be inspired, be determined, vote if you are moved to. Know there will be winners, losers, and screwups. That’s the American way, but it’ll drive you insane if you let it.