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Picking between horses, donkeys and elephants

By Brett Bowden - posted Monday, 1 November 2004

Tomorrow Australia will pause and hold its collective breath for the running of an all-important race. For most that race is the Melbourne Cup. For almost as many it is the United States presidential election. The cup is run and won in a little over three minutes. But it is the latter that will have a more profound and lasting impact on this country.

Both races have remarkable histories and have thrown up some great victors. The former has its champions such as Archer, Phar Lap, the unlikely Kiwi, and more recently, Might and Power. The latter has given America and the world great men like Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and two Roosevelts. All have been champions of the people in way or another. Neither George W Bush nor John Kerry will go down in history with the same regard and admiration as Jefferson, or Phar Lap for that matter.

Those wagering their hard-earned on the Melbourne Cup can rest assured that the runners’ form is genuine. None have had their track record or character called into question as Bush and Kerry have. And while trainers might be spruiking or downplaying their charges chances, none have resorted to scare tactics or touched-up campaign ads.


Punters can also be confident that the race will be run fairly and squarely and the best combination of horse, jockey and trainer will win the day. Sure, there will be some hard luck stories; horses caught three wide all the way, or suffering interference, or held up for a run in the straight. But at post time the trainers know all the rules, the weights are set fairly - give or take half a kilo - and chief steward Des Gleeson will have read the riot act to the jockeys about riding tactics.

Those casting a ballot in the US presidential election cannot be so confident in seeing a just result when they walk into the ballot box and punch a card, press a button, ring a bell, or vote by whatever other means their particular county employs. They can’t all even be sure of who is running for president as the names appearing on the ballot will vary from state-to-state. Thanks, in part, to some of the dozens of court challenges that have been lodged prior to polling day. And then there is the unusual case of absentee ballots mailed to Ohio voters missing the names of Kerry and his running-mate John Edwards.

At least those having a punt on the Melbourne Cup or entering the $2 office sweep - whether in Melbourne, Broome or anywhere in between - can be guaranteed that the same 24 runners will appear on the card.

And then there are the thousands who will be denied the opportunity to vote for one reason or another. An FBI investigation is under way in Nevada amidst claims that a Republican voter registration organisation destroyed the forms of those registering as Democrats. Up to 58,000 absentee ballots have mysteriously disappeared in Florida’s Broward County. And instead of being shamed by their actions in 2000, Florida election officials are again doing their best to disenfranchise thousands of mainly black voters.

In the event that the Cup experiences a “photo finish” or even a protest, all concerned can be assured that the judge’s decision will be final and respected by all. The stewards’ impartiality and integrity are beyond question. Unlike US Supreme Court Justice, Anton Scalia and Vice President, Dick Cheney, Des Gleeson and Bart Cummings do not stroll together around the golf links like the best of mates. Rather, a healthy mutual respect amongst all suffices. There will be no court challenges or recriminations. One way or the other the “all clear” will be declared by about 3.30pm on the day.

Should the US election again run close, which is highly likely, the same orderly procedure and conduct cannot be counted on. How can American voters expect anything else? Four years have passed since the debacle that was Florida 2000 and it seems that all the wrong lessons have been learnt. Aside from the concerns over electoral rolls and the various voting technologies, perhaps the biggest flaw remains the fact that almost all electoral officials are political partisans. Sadly, the same goes for the various courts, right up to the US Supreme Court.


Instead of devoting the necessary energy and resources to fixing the many kinks in the electoral system - and the whole antiquated electoral college system is another matter - both Republicans and Democrats have prepared for the 2004 election by having an army of lawyers and a fleet of jets on stand-by to get them to electoral hot-spots.

Whether Australian voters liked the result of last month’s federal election or not, they can at least be assured that the process and the outcome was by-and-large free, fair and just. The same goes for the running of the Melbourne Cup and those who will collectively wage around $110 million on the “race that stops a nation”. The same cannot be said for the US presidential election. With the result likely to be contested and possibly undecided for weeks, there is more than a moderate danger that it is a race with the potential to bring a nation to its knees.

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About the Author

Brett Bowden is a Professor of History and Politics at Western Sydney University.

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