Deadlines are hallmark of democracy

Posted: Nov 06, 2002 12:00 AM
This column was due Nov. 5. It would have been better, I think, if I could have had another day to finish it, especially since I wrote it on Election Day. Look, I might say to my editor, tomorrow I'll know how the election turned out. And my editor would say, "Too bad. Today's your deadline. Newspaper editors around the country are sitting by their computers like expectant fathers awaiting the arrival of your trenchant and sagacious prose. Depriving them, even for one day, would be like denying them oxygen to breathe and light with which to see." OK, actually she'd probably just say, "too bad," and leave it there. But I can dream, can't I? I bring this up because deadlines are necessary in a democracy, and since Election Day is the official deadline for democracy it seems appropriate to discuss the importance of deadlines, because they are rapidly disappearing. For example, in New Jersey, the state Supreme Court arbitrarily lifted the deadline for candidates to get on the ballot when Senator Robert Torricelli quit the race. The issue for the justices was obvious: The law said a candidate could not get on the ballot if there were a vacancy within 51 days of the election. The judges ruled that the deadline was less important than giving New Jersey voters a "real" choice in the election, so they simply invalidated the law. Deadline, shmeadline. This was hardly something new. We all remember that in the 2000 presidential race, the Florida Supreme Court decided that the deadline for the counting of votes didn't mean anything either. In St. Louis that same year, a judge ruled that certain polling stations in Democratic areas should stay open past their deadline. If there had been a deadline for replacing Sen. Paul Wellstone on the Minnesota ballot, the Democrats likely would have found a judge to throw it out. This relative contempt for deadlines is a symptom of America's exaltation of voting. The clichés are endless: Every vote must count; we have to get everyone to the polls; choose or lose, etc. The idea seems to be that democracy is enriched solely by an increase in lever-pulling. I've always rejected this idea, because voting in and of itself has as much to do with democracy and good government as disrobing has to do with sex. Both are often necessary for the goal, neither are ever a substitute for it. Iraq recently had an "election" that resulted in a 100 percent pro-Saddam turnout. Only a fool would confuse this with democracy. Or imagine if we gave the vote to every current or former prison inmate and they voted for opening the jails tomorrow. Does that make for good government? Voting in and of itself is a mechanical act. It only becomes the rich and special thing many of us believe it to be when the voters are prepared to take their responsibilities seriously. And that's where deadlines come in. Anybody who has taught students or managed a staff understands that deadlines are arbitrary 90 percent of the time. Telling students that a paper is due on the 15th rather than the 14th or the 16th may have no rational basis whatsoever. But picking a deadline focuses the mind. In a democracy we set deadlines -Election Day is specified in the Constitution -because candidates and voters need to focus their minds. Editorial boards need to meet and study the candidates. TV stations need to plan when they'll run debates. Interest groups need to put together their voters guides. Candidates need to schedule a sometimes endless series of events, commercials, speeches, primaries, registrations, endorsements and rallies. Fiddling with the deadlines equals fiddling with the educational process by which mere lever-pullers become informed citizens and conscientious voters. And it's not just the judges and the elites who've grown contemptuous of deadlines. Voters have come to believe their lives are too hectic to vote on a single day (in the 19th century people had to travel great distances to vote). Oregon votes entirely by mail now, and more than 20 states have no restrictions on who casts an absentee ballot or why. In 2000, 14 percent of all votes were cast up to a month before Election Day; in some states that number was as high as 30 percent. This means many candidates have a harder time getting voter's attention as the deadline nears, and many voters will be locked out of changing their minds should a candidate die or drop out of the race or simply reveal themselves to be a boob late in the game. That is until a judge changes the rules for them.