By Noah Gittell
If you are going to make a movie about deep, systemic problems in American democracy these days, you had better make it funny. Those who closely follow politics remain in various stages of depression and disillusionment following the traumatic government shutdown in October. And with another manufactured crisis looming in January, an exploration of America’s odd and misunderstood voting laws might be useful. But it also could be a bitter pill to swallow.
It helps a lot to have Mo Rocca as your guide. In Electoral Dysfunction, the former Daily Show correspondent and regular guest on NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! brings his bemused detachment to a satirical analysis of our absurd voting system. The documentary approaches things at both a micro and macro level. Anyone who has taken a civics class has learned of the stupidity of the Electoral College, but few will know why it exists in the first place. Rocca spends a significant amount of time looking into it without reaching a satisfactory conclusion.
Rocca acts out a presidential election with a group of third graders, which is weak satire but still amusing. However, his investigation of an actual member of the Electoral College, a 19-year-old Indiana college student who comes across as a complete moron, goes nowhere. It’s novel to see the actual person who casts a vote to elect the president, but Rocca never convinces us that it actually matters. The job appears to require nothing more than an ability to show up and operate a pen.
The film is more successful when it goes deep into the field during the 2008 election, zeroing in on Indiana’s troubling voter ID laws, some of the strictest in the nation. The emergent issue is voter fraud, which most experts claim is virtually non-existent, and their reasoning is sound: why would a person risk years in prison for a single extra vote? Republicans, however, have passed a series of state laws to combat voter fraud. Democrats claim this legislation is an attempt to prevent the poor, the elderly and racial minorities, most of whom vote Democrat, from voting.
In the Hoosier state, we meet our two opposing leads, a Republican campaigner who loudly and unabashedly voices her unsubstantiated concerns about Democratic voter fraud and a Democratic party operative who delivers votes supposedly no one else can. Which one of them you will see favorably likely depends on your own political leanings, and it’s unclear whether the film is even interested in swaying you.
What it does is show us a small, bitter slice of a much larger pie. The implications in voting reform are huge, obviously, but directors David Deschamps, Leslie D. Farrell and Bennett Singer wisely refrain from drawing too many sweeping conclusions. Likewise, the point of view is more objective than you would think. With Rocca leading the charge, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was going to be an extended Daily Show segment, a liberal skewing of red-state politics, but outside of a few half-hearted jokey segments, Rocca and his perspective mostly recede to the background.
And this is how it should be. For a film of this kind to have any sort of impact, it must not hem too closely to any one political perspective. Since Electoral Dysfunction has already been shown on PBS, I fear it will be marketed to a mostly liberal audience. This is a shame, for its story will certainly be valuable to civic-minded viewers who still maintain hope for our democracy. The only question is, how many of them are left?
Electoral Dysfunction is currently available on iTunes, Hulu, VOD and Netflix Watch Instantly.