What a dreadful campaign season this has been -- an interminable Bataan death march of ruffle-no-feathers debates, sleazy, mud-slinging TV ads, and insipid poll-driven candidates.
In fact, the only truly compelling aspect of Election 2002 has been trying to decide which campaign was the most inept. There were so many contenders: Sen. Robert "The Torch" Torricelli's corruption-fueled flameout in New Jersey; Andrew Cuomo's "I had too many ideas" nosedive in New York; the breakdown of Janet Reno's red pickup truck on her way to the Florida statehouse; Montana senatorial candidate Mike Taylor's bizarre, Perot-esque "I quit. No, wait, I don't" temper tantrum, after the opposition ran an ad he felt implied that he was gay. It was the most amusing display of heterosexual panic since baseball superstar Mike Piazza called a press conference to insist that he liked girls.
But the most wretched election spectacle of all took place on my home turf in California, where we were given the option of voting for the remarkably unpalatable incumbent governor, Gray Davis, who never met a special interest he didn't want to hit up for a donation, or his stupefyingly incompetent challenger Bill Simon, who shot himself in the foot so many times it's a wonder he can still walk. It was like being asked to choose which kind of bag we preferred to suffocate ourselves with, paper or plastic. Illustrating one of the paradoxes of modern politics, both candidates managed to make blandness taste bad.
Today's wrinkle-free candidates are so afraid of offending anyone, so committed to the notion that the only way to win is by running to the middle, that they end up standing for nothing more profound than: "Vote for me, the other guy sucks!" This trend makes the sudden loss of Paul Wellstone, a politician distinguished by his unwavering commitment to his beliefs, popular or not, even more tragic. Wellstone's death brings his rare breed one step closer to extinction.
Campaign 2002 saw some of the most vitriolic TV ads in recent memory. There was the ad in the Georgia senatorial race that sought to link war hero Max Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam, with mass murderers Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein because he had voted against some of President Bush's homeland security measures. And then there was Texas governor Rick Perry's just-this-side-of-slanderous attempt to smear his opponent, Tony Sanchez, with the blood of a DEA agent murdered by Mexican drug lords 17 years ago. "The Justice Department," the ad slimed, "said Sanchez had a choice: to cooperate with law enforcement or the drug dealers. Sanchez chose the drug dealers."
The stench from this political cesspool is expected to keep roughly 70 percent of eligible voters away from the polls. And nothing in the much-ballyhooed "Help America Vote Act" the president signed into law last week will change that.
These long-awaited election reforms may make it less likely we'll have a repeat of 2000's dangling-chad fiasco -- they require states to replace outdated voting equipment and create computerized voter registration rolls in time for Election Day 2006. But they will do absolutely nothing to improve the quality of candidates we can vote for on our high-tech voting machines.
For that we need more fundamental changes in our electoral system.
For starters, the incoming Congress should immediately pass legislation requiring broadcasters to offer political candidates free airtime. Candidates in congressional and gubernatorial races forked over close to $1 billion for TV commercials this year alone -- and, as a result of the absurd cost of these ads, spent an equally absurd amount of their time raising money to pay for them. Time that could've been better spent figuring out why they were running in the first place.
We should also push to make it possible for voters nationwide to register on Election Day. Same-day registration, currently permitted in six states (states that, not coincidentally, averaged a markedly higher turnout in the last election), would allow insurgent candidates whose campaigns catch fire in the final days of a race to attract voters who have been turned off by politics as usual -- especially those who are just coming of voting age but have yet to be convinced that voting can make a difference. It's on the ballot in California Tuesday, as Prop. 52, but the measure is trailing at the polls.
Instant run-off voting would also expand the political playing field by allowing voters to abandon the increasingly prevalent "lesser of two evils" yardstick and vote their conscience without fear of turning their third-party candidate into a spoiler. Of course, the big kahuna of voting reform remains full public financing of elections, which would dramatically diminish the corrupting influence of special-interest money and give us candidates beholden to no one but the American people.
In the meantime, despite the anorexic pickings currently offered, we still need to honor our duty as citizens by heading to the polls on Election Day. Here's my recommendation: Hold your nose, cast your ballot, then turn around and begin the fight to reform the system -- before we have to endure another demoralizing campaign season.