The Election Campaign (Written June 2004):
One thing that is quite different from countries like Australia, Britain or Canada is the length of the campaign process in America.
In Australia, once an election is announced the campaign runs for about six weeks or so. Here, maybe because the date of the election is fixed (as opposed to countries like Australia where it can be anytime the government feels like it, as long as it is within a certain number of years of the last one) the campaign seems to run for practically a whole year.
From the beginning of our trip in late March, we have seen political ads on TV. The Republican ones finish with a clip of the President saying ‘I’m George W Bush and I approve this message’. You don’t see the ads in states that are considered ‘safe’ for one side or the other. For example, we hardly saw any political ads in California, which is a sure thing for the Democrats, but you do get them in places like Arizona or Florida, which are seen as being up for grabs. Apparently there are only about 17 states that are considered to be ’in play’ and therefore targeted for the campaign ads.
Towards the end of our trip, John Kerry is considered certain to be the Democrat nominee, although the Convention has not yet been held. While we were in Boston (late May) they were preparing for the Democratic Party Convention to be held a few weeks later.
Reading the papers, there is much discussion about implementing computerized voting machines to prevent a repeat of the Florida debacle in 2000. There is a debate as to whether these machines will produce a paper record of the vote or not. It does not seem occur to them that an old-fashioned paper ballot, supervised by a competent and impartial federal agency can work perfectly well, as it does in Australia. Instead, they seem to leave the voting process up to each state or even county, in the name of 'local control'.
This means that states decide who can vote, and the procedures for voting, even though it is a Federal election. Their rules vary widely. For example, in some southern states convicted felons are barred from voting, for life, even once they have served their sentence and parole. In other places they may vote, once they have served out their sentence. Similarly, they have different rules on things like whether a voter can vote outside their home precinct or not.
The fact that states and counties run the process also means that poorer counties may not be able to afford the new-fangled voting machines, although I think there is a program where the Federal government assists localities to upgrade their voting procedures. They could certainly learn quite a bit from Australia on some of these issues.
We have been asked numerous times to enrol to vote or to sign various petitions. These young guys walk the streets in the big cities with a clipboard, calling out 'help us get rid of Bush'. Presumably others are trying to sign up voters for the Republican Party. We’ve also been asked to enrol to vote at the entrance to shopping malls and other public places.
It is thought that the election will be fairly close, as the country is highly polarized over things like the Iraq war and Bush’s record in general. As far as we can gather, Bush is loved by most in the southern states, particularly the ‘religious right’, and is loathed by many people of more liberal views, especially in the Northeast and on the West Coast.