Title: Electoral Dysfunction
Directors: Bennett Singer, David Deschamps, Leslie Farrell
The title of “Electoral Dysfunction,” a new political documentary hosted by Mo Rocca, hints at a roiling discontent that isn’t much part of the tone of this irreverent, civics-minded offering. Sure, in offering up a look at the United States’ Electoral College process and the many weird incongruities that our general lack of federal voting standardization procedures elicit, co-directors Bennett Singer, Leslie Farrell and David Deschamps’ movie is very illustrative of the different political party mindsets when it comes to voter registration drives, absentee ballots and other mechanisms of induced greater election participation by citizenry. But this is an engrossing and eye-opening work that neither delights nor aims to particularly poke anyone in the eyes.
Hosted by Mo Rocca, “Electoral Dysfunction” begins by noting that although the phrase “right to vote” is part of the popular vernacular, our Constitution makes absolutely no mention of that fact — unlike, say, the Constitution of South Africa. The history of voting in our country, of course, is a long and complicated one — both with respect to who gets to vote, how that vote is counted (the shameful “three-fifths compromise”), and how the Election Day popular vote from the now more than 13,000 electoral districts gets filtered through the Electoral College, which officially selects our presidents.
After sifting through some of this history — including a very amusing example election for a classroom of first-graders involving markers and colored pencils — the movie then sets out to provide an overview snapshot of exactly how voting works (and maybe doesn’t work) in America. Set against the backdrop of the 2008 election between Barack Obama and John McCain, Rocca heads to Indiana, home of one of the strictest voter I.D. laws in the country, to trail both a Republican and Democratic party loyalist as they each endeavor to mobilize their party’s get-out-the-vote campaign in the notoriously sharp-elbowed and swing-happy eighth and ninth Congressional districts.
One might assume that, owing to its temporal remove, “Electoral Dysfunction” is kind of dated, but that’s far from the case — especially as voter identification laws in Pennsylvania and other states, laws passed by Republican state legislatures after their gains in 2010, wind their way to the courts in advance of this year’s presidential election. Mainly, though, since it unfolds against such a historic election, with the highest national voter turnout since 1964, the movie has a charged, electric feel to it. One feels caught up in the uncertainty of the moment and the passionate feelings of those volunteers on the ground.
Rocca, of NPR’s “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” and formerly of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” is an amiable guide, and while in theory his résumé indicates that his personal opinions might lean a bit left, his interest, tact and professionalism with every interview subject is unassailable. “Electoral Dysfunction” gives voice to contrasting viewpoints, and makes a concerted effort to understand the thinking of those that would place more assertive limits or hurdles on voting.
The interviewees are almost uniformly great as well — from Republican National Committee member Dee Dee Benkie and Democratic operative Mike Marshall, the two main subjects, to Harvard professor Alex Keysarr and would-be electors in both parties. Rocca even gets into a functional critique of ballot design (including those infamous Palm Beach County butterfly ballots, over 6,600 of which were thrown out for double-punches in a state decided by only 530-odd votes in the 2000 presidential election) with professional designer Todd Oldham. “Electoral Dysfunction” is utter catnip for politicos and documentary film fans, but its attractive presentation and easygoing nature also make this important and instructive movie approachable for level-headed audiences of various political stripes.
NOTE: “Electoral Dysfunction” opens in Los Angeles at the Laemmle NoHo 7 in North Hollywood, but more information about the movie as well as its companion book is available online, at www.ElectoralDysfunction.org.
Written by: Brent Simon