Expanding the Circleby James Arnett
Grand Illusion: The Myth of Voter Choice in a Two-Party Tyranny
(New Press, June 2009)
The 2004 Presidential election was an emotional race—certainly the most emotional one that I’ve lived through. In the aftermath of the 2000 Florida debacle, September 11th and the invasion of Iraq, there seemed to be a lot on the line. It was my first election in New York State, and I had registered several months ahead of time, itching to cast my vote. That morning, I arrived at my polling place—with the card the County Clerk’s office had sent me confirming my registration and telling me exactly where to go—and was subsequently told that the County had no record of my registration. I showed the poll workers the card I had confirming my registration, but to no avail. My vote had been suppressed, negated, ghosted by the machine. After reading Theresa Amato’s recent Grand Illusion: The Myth of Voter Choice in a Two-Party Tyranny, I realized that the election game in America is equally rigged against the candidates themselves unless you have the backing of one of the two major parties.
As Ralph Nader’s national campaign manager in 2000 and 2004, Amato brings a wealth of personal experience to the book. The first half details her myriad challenges trying to get Nader onto the ballot in every state. The litany of lawsuits, irrational court orders, and state regulations is by turns vertiginous, jaw-dropping, and numbing. Amato’s primary focus is on the fact that America, unlike nearly every other democracy, has no national standard for getting on the ballot for a federal election. All of these decisions are handled by the states themselves, each with a completely different and arbitrary standard and set of regulations for placing candidates on the ballot. As Amato repeatedly points out, navigating 50 different bureaucracies with a small, underfunded staff is a logistical nightmare, even without a target on your back.
And Nader’s 2004 campaign most certainly had enemies, chiefly the Democratic Party. The belief of some Gore supporters that Nader had spoiled or ruined the 2000 election and foisted the Bush presidency on the country was still strong and held by many prime movers in the Democratic Party. (Amato dedicates an early chapter to debunking and dispelling this idea.) The campaign found itself on the receiving end of a vast array of legal challenges and lawsuits regarding their petitioning and collecting of signatures. These challenges stretched the campaign to its breaking point, forcing it to spend countless hours and dollars fighting suits that were coming both directly and indirectly from the Democrats. (Amato offers testimony of the head of the Democratic Party in Maine asserting that the DNC was funding some individuals to file suits and complaints against the Nader campaign.)
Amato goes into a great amount of detail, showing step by step how the cases in each state played out. While this becomes a little tedious over the stretch, she presents enough shocking decisions and abuses of authority to keep things interesting. As she points out, most state election committees and offices are bipartisan, not nonpartisan. As both Republicans and Democrats have an interest in keeping third parties off the ballot, the deck is stacked quite deeply against the third party or independent player as all state interests from the Secretary of State to the courts are typically controlled by one of the two major parties. Moreover, Amato cites enough historic precedent to illustrate that third party candidates have a rough road to travel even if they’re not Ralph Nader in 2004.
However, the latter half of the book is much less interesting. Amato devotes several chapters to a general analysis of the way third party candidates are marginalized throughout the election process touching primarily on the most obvious and clichéd problems with our election process. The arcane financing laws of the FEC, the media’s hostility and virtual blacklist towards third party candidates, the refusal of the debate committee to allow participation to third party candidates and the setting of poor legal precedence with regard to ballot access all come under fire here, but there’s nothing really that insightful or new about this section.
Grand Illusion, then, doesn’t come to any sound conclusions about what can be done about this problem. It raises awareness of the difficulties that an independent candidate faces when running for office, but Amato’s recommendations to make ballot access more fair and just are not really feasible or politically viable options. As she repeatedly states, making a more perfect election system will require the intervention of Congress, a body that has been controlled by the two major parties for most of the last century and that is unlikely to promote competition for access to its ranks. The quixotic nature of Amato’s expose coupled with her uneven writing style result in a largely unsuccessful book.