Democrats have accused Republicans of engaging in "undemocratic" rhetoric with GOP suggestions that a vote for John Kerry is a victory for the terrorists. But in their fight over independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader, both parties have shown contempt for the democratic process.
In their desperate attempt to keep the "spoiler" Nader off state ballots, Democratic operatives have violated their party's own stated principle, repeated ad nauseam by Al Gore in the 2000 overtime period: "Let every vote be counted."
In state after state, Democrats have challenged Nader's ballot petitions in court, claiming many of signatures are those of mercenary Republicans trying to derail Kerry.
They are correct: GOP operatives have gleefully joined the pro-Nader camp in many competitive states, knowing that Nader's presence in the race hurts Kerry. They claim they are only acting in the interests of democracy.
If the Republicans want to donate to Nader's campaign, there should be no objection to this; it's their money. But by signing Nader petitions, they are subverting the democratic process every bit as much as the Democrats are, by artificially inflating Nader's actual support. They have essentially found a way to vote for Bush twice.
The Democrats should not be playing this game, either. They should stop worrying about Nader and focus on their base.
It is repeated again and again, as if it were gospel truth: Nader cost Gore the election in 2000. After all, Gore lost Florida by less than a thousand votes, possibly less, while Nader garnered almost 100,000 there.
Ever since then, the Democrats have spewed rhetorical venom at Nader and, by extension, those who voted for him. Democratic strategist James Carville told a gathering of the faithful here in Lawrence this spring that he "wouldn't p--- down Nader's throat if his heart was on fire."
Statements like this lead many to view the Democratic leadership as arrogant. The implication is that Nader's voters somehow belong to them but have been drawn into a cult by the charismatic consumer advocate.
This attitude of entitlement is probably what drove those voters to Nader in the first place. John Kerry is not entitled to anyone's vote. He has to earn it.
Besides, the Nader-bashing is a red herring. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Florida had about 12 million eligible voters in 2000, and more than 40 percent of them did not vote. Consider how many of those roughly 5 million who stayed home were registered Democrats or at least potential Gore voters. If Gore had inspired even a fraction of them to show up at the polls, he would now be running for re-election.
If Gore and Kerry cannot energize their own base, whose fault is that? Nader's? At least the Naderites bothered to vote. They should be congratulated.
The Democrats should try to win back those votes with their message, not by trying to negate them in the courts. But most important, they should redouble their efforts to mobilize those who stayed home last time.
We could prevent "the Nader problem" in the future by allowing for runoff voting in close presidential elections, or by "instant runoff" voting, which has the same effect without the trouble of a second trip to the polls.
Either of these practices could work at the state level, or better yet, we could trash the outmoded Electoral College and implement them at the national level. In either case, they would prevent a candidate with 2 percent support from tilting an election one way or another.
Sadly, by the time we see real election reform I'll probably be collecting Social Security (or wishing Social Security still existed). In the meantime, both Republicans and Democrats would do well to respect the rights of Nader and his supporters, and stop trying to subvert the democratic process.
Deron Lee is a Kansas University graduate student in journalism who is researching media coverage of the Ralph Nader campaign.