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Dysfunctional Performance: The U.S. Voting Machine Debacle and the Machinery of Democracy
by Nina Mankin

[Abstract en Español]

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"…The exercise of the elective franchise is a social duty of as solemn a nature as man can be called to perform…man may not innocently trifle with his vote [and] every elector is a trustee as well for others as himself."
-Daniel Webster, 19th-Century U.S. Politician and Elder Statesman.(1)

"Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country."
– Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States

"It's not the voting that's democracy; it's the counting"
-Tom Stoppard, British Playwright

Nothing illustrates democracy like voting. Consider the image of ex-slaves lining up to cast ballots in the Reconstruction South, or that of an Afghani woman in her burka voting for the first time in a country where only a short while before she was forbidden even to leave her house. If, as linguist J. L. Austin first articulated, encompassed in certian speech-acts that he called 'performative' are entire histories of compulsory behavior (the examples he famously gives are the 'I do' solemnizing a wedding and the 'I christen' naming a ship) then voting is an essentially performative civic-act. Within the act of voting is contained our most idealized visions of democracy. When you vote you are not only casting a ballot or expressing an opinion, you are performing your enfranchisement in the political system: I vote, therefore I am (a citizen) – with the rights, privileges and responsibilities of a citizen.

Wars of all kinds have been waged over the right to vote, and the U.S. sends delegations of officials (and soldiers) around the world to ensure (and enforce) that this most essential performance of democracy is not disgraced by incompetence or fraud. According to Richard Soudriette, president of the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES), a Washington-based nonprofit organization that assists in international electoral monitoring, "The United States has played 'a key role' in expanding the number of electoral democracies in the world from 39 in 1974 to 120 in 2000." (2) The technology through which governments facilitate individuals' participation in this performance of citizenship is itself culturally and ideologically revealing. Consider India, for example, where numbers—not names—indicate the candidate's identity, thus facilitating voting by a large illiterate population. Or the United States, where federal laws have only recently been passed to ensure that voting equipment is accessible to all individuals with disabilities—a constituency that, while recognized in theory, has only been enfranchised in fact through this changing technology.

The United States is one of only a very few self-declared democracies in which the voting system itself—that is, the machinery and procedures used in the actual practice of election management—is not standardized across the nation (3). In the U.S. this is because of a governmental balance of "States'" vs. "Federal" rights guaranteed under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (The amendment reads: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.") The Tenth Amendment plays a central role in many difficult cultural-political issues in which the U.S. is continually mired: abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty - all are legislated to greater and lesser degrees, by the individual states. This is true of voting as well. Because of the Tenth Amendment, for instance, regulations legislating whether or not ex-felons (who are disproportionately African-American and thus statistically Democratic) can or cannot vote vary from state to state. It is also because of the Tenth Amendment that laws regulating what kind of voting equipment is used and how (and when) to conduct recounts in close elections also vary from state to state. Thus, U.S. elections are not only performances of democracy, they are performances of a particular kind of pluralistic democracy based not upon federal standards but upon "community standards," a political buzzword often used to evoke the traditionally conservative agenda of states' rights.

This performance of plurality came into sharp and unsettling relief in the 2000 U.S. Presidential election when the voting machines of entire voting districts performed badly. In one of the closest contests ever recorded in U.S. electoral history, the battle over manual recounts in Florida (the state whose electoral votes would decide the presidency) was infinitely complicated by the poor design of these often antiquated machines. The question of whether and how manual recounts of these contested votes would occur resulted in weeks of rancorous national debate.

In her recent book The Archive And The Repertoire, performance studies scholar Diana Taylor (who is also the senior editor of this publication) outlines her concept of the “scenario” as a tool for cultural analysis. The scenario, she explains, is an organizing principle that allows for the incorporation of such things as cultural assumptions, expectations, and behaviors into the historic repertoire. For example, Taylor presents “conquest” as a scenario that informs an array of expressions as diverse as the writings of Christopher Columbus, the organizing principle behind certain museum exhibitions, and the power of such pop icons as the television show Fantasy Island and the singer Grace Jones. She writes of the U.S. “frontier” scenario as a set of stereotypes and behaviors that “organizes events as diverse as smoking advertisements and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.” (4)


“Election,” in the United States, is its own scenario within which we can find such sub-scenarios as “voting,” “protest,” “political conventions,” etc. Taylor presents scenarios as particularly useful in their capacity to encompass strongly divergent viewpoints. “Elections,” for example, are seen by some as unchallengeable performances of stability, patriotism and enfranchisement, while others may see them historically as performances of corruption, apathy, and disenfranchisement.
The debacle that was the 2000 presidential election provided a new sub-scenario to the broader category of “Election” – that new scenario is called “Florida.”

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