Oh, you could see it coming. All of it. Driving around the Garden State the last few months, one noticed the ubiquitous littering of roadsides with JACK signs. That’s fine (unless, like me, you don’t want to be advertised to (by a politician of all things) everywhere you go). That’s the political process. But the number of signs advocating a vote for Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli (and the relative few for incumbent Phil Murphy) was a stark signal that this year’s election was going to be much, much closer than the polling (+10 for Murphy, by some accounts) was indicating.
Have we learned nothing in the last few years? Don’t trust polls, trust people. Many people wanted a change, many people believe Murphy is too progressive, many people believe the election was stolen from Trump and want comeuppance, many people just plain liked Ciattarelli’s vision for New Jersey.
So, you could see a tight race coming. And when, on election night, the race was indeed close, of course there was going to be a cacophonous rousing across social and digital media (and on TV, and in the papers) that the election was stolen. That after “leading” in the initial vote count, Democrats were going to “find votes,” and the establishment was going to seize the election from good, honest Ciattarelli voters. (As of Nov. 9, a week after the election, with Murphy’s vote total tens of thousands higher than Ciattarelli’s, the Republican candidate has refused to concede.)
Bullshit. But here’s the thing: We’re all complicit in it.
Here’s how our election system failed this year: We had polls that indicated an easy Murphy win that didn’t accurately foresee a legitimately tight race. We have a voting reporting system that creates the feeling of a football game in which people take leads and then come back. We have two political machines on either side of the aisle that tell us to vote pragmatically instead of who we really agree with, giving, in this instance, the illusion of an easy race for Dems (e.g. people were told not to vote for Bernie because he couldn’t win, or else he’d usher in a red wave in the future; well, the red wave is kind of happening with Biden, too). And we have a media (and social media) landscape that allows skepticism of our democratic process to proliferate.
But by and large, the base mechanisms for voting work. Counties organize elections and verify voters, mail-in ballots are sent out, volunteers staff polling places, people vote in person early or on the day-of (if they haven’t mailed in a ballot), votes are counted and winners are named. Sure, we could improve the process in NJ by allowing same-day registration, and certainly we can invest in more efficient methods of voter verification. We could expand Election Day to Election Weekend, we could upgrade voting technology, we could speed up counting, we could pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. We could, simply put, do more to make voting easier for more people. It’s all true. But time and again, the voting process produces clear winners and losers.
It’s us that mess it up. What the actual fuck purpose do polls serve? Especially now, when so many in recent years are so wrong, and the methods to produce polls are so outdated and out of line with modern society. All they do is create a discrepancy between “what should have happened,” and “what actually happened.” It creates doubt in the democratic process of voting.
Maybe precincts should not report vote tallies until all votes—mail-in, absentee, early and day-of ballots—are counted. Now, critics might say that casts an even greater shadow on the process. That votes are counted in a dark room, only for one government official to suddenly name a winner. But the alternative is people untrustworthy of, unfamiliar with or unwilling to learn the process tend to believe a candidate takes a lead, and then loses that lead when the outcome isn’t in the best interest of shadowy governmental overlords.
And the media is to blame, too. Headlines and commentary that go something like “Ciattarelli takes an early lead,” or “Murphy’s comeback is complete,” make it seem like votes came in late that changed the tide of the election. No. All votes were cast by 8 p.m. on Election Day. There was a winner at 8 p.m. There is no actual reason to report the number of votes before all of the votes are counted, save for the delicate argument of government transparency.
More doubt creeps into the process.
Which allows for Russian bots, conspiracy theorists, opportunistic politicians and the “just asking questions” crowd to take to social media and clarify that doubt into Twitter posts and call-ins to conservative radio stations. As more votes cast for Murphy were counted on election night and the race became closer and closer, with Murphy eventually overtaking Ciattarelli on Wednesday (and eventually named the winner by the Associated Press) already the #stopthesteal hashtags were out. With only three-quarters of the votes counted, the losers were already playing defense (though “ahead” in the vote tally at the time) and they’re weapon of choice was, “This election is rigged. We couldn’t possibly have lost, not after it looked early on.” Ciattarelli supporters said the AP’s call was premature. More doubt, but this time with a clear enemy: the media cabal. That old bag.
Ciattarelli himself, in his gloating speech on election night, cast further doubt on the process by emphasizing the word “legal” when saying all legal votes would be counted. Doubt when he and his team said lawyers were at the ready to ensure a fair outcome. Sure, campaigns have the right to utilize the justice system to ensure fair elections, but they don’t have the right to cast doubt on already fair elections through legal means. It erodes democracy. And we are complicit in that erosion when we don’t hold accountable pollsters, politicians and media for capitalizing off that doubt.
Unfortunately, we live in a time when doubt can easily be manufactured from almost any circumstance. (I mean, people lined up in Dallas this week to see JFK Jr.). We ought to start looking critically at ways the voting process, and a societal framework that perpetuates it being treated like a game, can be adjusted to eradicate doubt.