Appearing on the HBO talk show "Real Time With Bill Maher" a few weeks before last week's election, actor Tim Robbins urged voters to stand their ground when it came to demanding their right to cast ballots: "Refuse provisional ballots. They're throwing those out. They can throw those out. If that's your last resort, take it, but fight in the polling place to vote. It's your right as an American. You have every right to vote if you're registered. And if you're not on the rolls and something went wrong, document it. Video cameras at polls are going to be an effective way to fight this Election Day."
On the actual Election Day, in a twist worthy of Orwell, Robbins had to take his own advice. When the politically active actor showed up at the New York City polling place where he has been casting ballots for more than a decade, he was told that his name was not on the list of registered voters. So he refused to leave his polling place in Greenwich Village, even after an election worker suggested that the police might have to be called. Finally informed that he could go downtown to the office of the city's Board of Elections, Robbins made the trek, got verification that he was properly registered, got a judge to rule that he would be allowed to vote, and headed back to his polling place to finally vote five hours after his Election Day ordeal began.
Robbins had the time, the resources and the information to make sure his vote would be cast and counted. He could overcome the hurdles placed in the way of democracy.
But not all Americans were so well-positioned, or so determined, as Robbins. And that is why last Tuesday's election cannot be called a success by anyone who takes serious the promise of the American experiment.
A great democracy that is home to a very busy people ought not ask citizens to wait up to eight hours to cast their ballots, But that is precisely what America has done during the course of this most volatile and critical of election seasons.
As citizens, we do democracy itself a disservice if we finish counting the votes and simply say: All's well that ends well.
Barack Obama has won the presidency. Democrats will control the Congress. And many Americans who griped through the last eight years about the Supreme Court intervention in the 2000 Florida recount and the mess that was Ohio in 2004 will be inclined to put aside their concerns about the problematic process by which we choose this nation's leaders
All is not well with the process by which America registers voters and casts and counts votes. And the time to repair a broken system is now, when the memories of its dysfunction -- so well documented by the group No More Stolen Elections! (www.nomorestolenelections.org) -- are fresh.
What are the signs of dysfunction?
1. Separate-but-equal access to the polls. With voting systems that differ from state to state, and sometimes even within states, the playing field is not equal.
It is easier to vote in some places than others: because there are more polling places, more machines, longer voting hours and more citizen-friendly practices and procedures. And make no mistake about the fact that, when a working mom with kids must wait in line for four hours, that is not an inconvenience. That is a barrier to voting. "When people are waiting in line four, five, six hours, that's just too long for a lot of working people who want to participate in this election," says former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, who now serves as mayor of Richmond.
2. Even people who are appropriately registered and ready to vote can run into problems such as the one Robbins faced.
This is a simple technological issue. Election boards can and should have laptops at all polling places so that poll workers can conduct checks instantaneously. Not every voter can spend half a workday correcting official errors. And they should not have to do so. "We have the technology," says Wilder. "Why not use it to make voting easier and more efficient?"
3. When voters actually get past the initial roadblocks, it appears that they can still lose their votes in machines that, for reasons of incompetence or chicanery, do not function properly.
There were scattered reports of machine breakdowns on Election Day -- as well as reports about soggy ballots in Virginia that would have to be dried before they could be counted -- and of course serious concerns about vote flipping. Even Oprah Winfrey had a problem with this. So did the Columbus Dispatch, a newspaper that endorsed McCain.
4. There are still patterns of intimidation at the polls.
An Indiana judge ruled last Tuesday that Republican poll watchers had violated a court order regarding the correct process for challenging voters at the polls, and the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund was monitoring similar problems across the country. In Wisconsin, after losing a lawsuit fight to make it easier to challenge newly registered voters, the Republican attorney general -- a McCain campaign co-chair -- dispatched assistant attorneys general and special agents to the polls in order to "monitor" supposed voter fraud, even though past Republican attempts to stir up controversies about voter fraud confirmed that there were few if any problems.
5. Counting processes don't produce accurate results on Election Night, creating false impressions that can become definitional.
A bad call of Florida in 2000 created the fantasy that George Bush had a credible lead in the state. In fact, he didn't. It was too close to call. In 2008, in many states -- including Pennsylvania -- officials planned to delay the counting of "emergency" and "provisional" ballots for days. Even though Pennsylvania went for Obama, such delays warp the picture of the finish -- denying Americans a clear image of the actual election result. And they are not necessary. Again, getting laptops into polling places would make it possible to resolve most registration and voting conflicts immediately.
The fundamental flaw in the system is that it really is no system at all.
The United States has no baseline standard for organizing federal elections. And thus, federal elections are as often gamed as they are won fairly.
Thus, in Ohio a prospective voter must register his or her intention weeks before election day in order to be able to cast a ballot.
In Minnesota, on the other hand, a resident can show up on election day and vote.
In Texas, voters can cast ballots weeks before election day and they don't even have to get out of their cars. "If you can drive or if you have a friend or relative who can drive you, you don't even have to get out of the car," announces the Texas secretary of state. "Call ahead to notify the early voting clerk that you want to vote from your car. This procedure is called 'curbside voting' and is available to any voter who has difficulty walking or standing for long periods."
In Pennsylvania, on the other hand, there is no "curbside voting." In fact, there is no early voting. Barry Kauffman, the executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, says that "Pennsylvania is very tradition-bound and not inclined to change with the time unless forced to."
And so it goes through every other aspect of the voting process. Different states, different rules. In some cases, within the same state the rules differ from county to county, or even within counties.
What that means is that the American electoral system, while it may last week have produced a satisfying result, is not functioning as it should. Lots of Democrats said during the Bush years that the party needed to win by enough that the election couldn't be stolen. But that should not be the standard in a nation that presumes to offer the world a democratic model.
"If we are an advanced society, if we are monitoring elections around the world, why not make voting right?" asks Douglas Wilder.
If this is to be a transformational moment, then let us begin by transforming our electoral system into one that is finally and truly democratic.