Thursday, November 11, 2010

Democracy: letter vs. spirit

In the study of democratization, one common issue is the tendency among government leaders to try to manipulate the system to their advantage by pretending to follow the letter of the law while quite blatantly violating the spirit. Most recently, the Burmese government held "multiparty elections", which nobody expected to be even remotely fair. Still, as the New York Times pointed out beforehand, "The appearance of electoral legitimacy and civilian institutions may make it easier for Myanmar’s neighbors to embrace what has been a pariah." One might hope this would not work, but in the NYT's post-election report, Seth Mydans notes that "China praised the election" and Burma's neighbours also welcomed it. The U.S. and many European nations, in contrast, have condemned the election for the sham that it obviously was.

Sadly, the same desire to ignore the spirit of democracy is now on display in Alaska, where Joe Miller is fighting Lisa Murkowski's write-in bid. As William Yardley reports on the NYT's "The Caucus" blog, lawyers working on behalf of the Republican Senate candidate were challenging any write-in vote that was even slightly mis-spelled. Indeed, they were initially challenging even people who had written "Murkowski, Lisa" rather than "Lisa Murkowski".

The Republican Party lawyers base their appeals on Alaska's election statutes, which state (in paragraph 11) that "A vote for a write-in candidate... shall be counted if the oval is filled in for that candidate and if the name, as it appears on the write-in declaration of candidacy, of the candidate or the last name of the candidate is written in the space provided."

(In fact, paragraphs 9-11 all deal with write-in candidates, and each of them is written quite poorly. One would think that some clarity would be helpful in voting laws. In any case, it is worth noting that the last clause of paragraph 11 does not state that a correctly spelled first name must accompany the last name, nor does it contain the "as it appears in the write-in declaration" of the preceding clause. Paragraph 10 does not contain that clause either, for that matter.)

I am sure more quibbling by lawyers is to follow, but the deeper question is this: does Joe Miller really want to win the Senate position based on the "appearance of electoral legitimacy" that might be achieved by systematically challenging every write-in vote that does not spell Lisa Murkowski's first and last name correctly, and in that order? Would that not suggest that he, and the Republican Party hacks who are doing the challenging for him, do not, in fact believe in the spirit of democracy (or, perhaps, believe in it only for non-allied foreign countries)?

No comments:

Post a Comment