The Delirium Of Democracy

Tuesday is a neglected middle child of a day. The weekend is not in sight; the work week is neither here nor there. "Saturday night is the loneliest night of the week"; "Monday, Monday." There are no songs about Tuesday. Nothing much happens, except that Americans vote.

If the body politic had a heart to go with its spleen, you might suspect Tuesday had been chosen for the same reason some of us choose the ugly puppy at the pound or the lopsided pumpkin from the patch. The least memorable, most nondescript, the day of the week that stands along the wall waiting in vain for someone to ask it to dance. There's a theory about why Tuesday was chosen as Election Day in 1845; it was a day when people were likely to take the buggy to town, when farmers came to sell their crops and traders to trade with the temporarily flush farmers.

Bye-bye, buggies.

In the same way that a school-year schedule organized around harvests and farm chores no longer makes much sense, elections built around farmer's markets are long overdue for an overhaul. Like golfing, shopping and quality time with the kids, voting should take place on weekends. All it would take to make that happen is a simple piece of congressional legislation. Of course, that is an oxymoron.

Let's recap: since Election Day was first set on the Tuesday after the first Monday, there has been the development of the automobile, the television, the personal computer, the automatic-teller machine and Game Boy Color. You can order books, bathing suits, even breakfronts online. Paychecks magically appear in your bank account; mortgage payments magically draw down your balance.

There has also, in recent years, been a constant decline in the number of Americans voting in presidential elections. In 1996, less than half of all eligible voters went to the polls. This gives a bizarre mathematical twist to the concept of majority rule; Bill Clinton was elected president--twice--with the support of fewer than one in four Americans. Conventional wisdom has it that voters don't vote because the candidates are lame. But the way in which they are elected is lamer still. Polls show that it is younger people who don't vote; perhaps that is in part because the way democracy works bears as much resemblance to the way they do business as two tin cans with a string between them does to a Palm pilot.

It is surely time to get rid of those voting machines that look as if they should be sitting in the back of a small-town antiques store, right between the Hoosier cabinet and the golden oak dresser. And it is time to change the day on which voting takes place. NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw has intrigued audiences when he suggests a weekend of voting and celebration, with the polls opening and closing at a fixed time throughout the country so that folks in California won't feel shut out. Each registered voter could cast an electronic ballot over a two-day period at computerized machines, somewhat like ATMs, available everywhere from shopping malls to football games. Then when the polls close Sunday evening there would be the election equivalent of the Super Bowl, with all Americans gathering to bask in the warm glow of the big screen and watch election results liberally larded with great new commercials. (Faith Hill could sing the national anthem, which would drive up the number of male viewers.)

"It should encourage more voting and it would be a helluva boon to beer, salsa and chip sales," says Brokaw. The Election Festival, you could call it, or the Day of Democracy. Marching bands could do the Dance of Democracy; Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Doris Kearns Goodwin could have the Discussion of Democracy. (Faith Hill could moderate: see above.) Another proposal is less festive and more utilitarian; set up a telephone tree, like the one you use to check your account balances or SAT scores, with access available only with an approved Social Security number and that ubiquitous (who would have guessed?) mother's maiden name. "Press 2 for George W. Bush"--what could be easier?

America deserves an election system as good as its DSL lines. The Democrats, who like to blame the Republicans for all inertia, say that Republicans don't want to change Tuesday voting because it is not a problem for their people: the partners at white-shoe law firms just say to the secretary, "Ethel, I'm going out to vote and to have lunch at the club." The Republicans insist that it's not really that they're worried all those new voters would be Democrats, but that a system like Brokaw's would be terribly expensive, and so, one assumes, might cut into those all-important pork projects. And both parties seem to be guided by the Joe Blow Lies Low doctrine, which decrees that if constituents are not screaming at the receptionist, the issue is moot.

Luckily, this is a perfect moment to allay the fear of higher costs. Soon a judge will consider how to punish Microsoft, which has been found guilty of engaging in various anticompetitive practices. Bill Gates, widely hated for being too rich, too much like the president of the high-school chess club, and perhaps for being the father of casual Fridays, should offer to work off the company's sentence by computerizing the entire election process through a national database that would make it easy to vote, easy to detect fraud and easy to tote up the results.

There are those who believe that the ballot is a privilege so great that it should be afforded only to those willing to endure rain, snow and the disapproval of that lady at the polling place who looks like she once had a sideline polishing the guillotine. To those folks I can only say: get over it. Voting should be quick, easy and appropriate to our technologically sophisticated time. Democracy can be fun. "To register a massive strawberry at everyone involved in the current election, press the pound sign." How great is that?