For a nation that proudly portrays itself as the protector of democratic principles, we have done an incredibly lousy job of practicing what we preach. The result is that U.S. democracy is dying from neglect.
- We have a party (Republicans) devoted to making it harder, not easier for all the people of America to vote.
- We have obsolete election mechanisms like the Electoral College
- An administration that continues to deny interference from hostile foreign powers.
- Antiquated voting machines
- Citizens United, which made it legal to bribe politicians.
- Giving voters only a window of hours in the middle of a typical work week to vote.
In spite of the severity, the majority of Americans simply blow it off like it was a nothing more than a case of national hiccups, making complacency the culprit which will go down in history as the cause of death for the system of democracy in the mightiest country in history.
Instead, we have historically proven ourselves to be too lazy, or too complacent, to participate in the one actual avenue we hold as citizens to participate in choosing the country’s future.
Turnout for U.S. presidential elections hasn’t surpassed 65 percent of the eligible population in the past 100 years; midterms don’t even get close to 50 percent over the same period. During the 2016 election, just 63 percent of the U.S. civilian voting-age population showed up at the polls, according to the US Election Assistance Commission, with just five states — Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Oregon — managing to break 70 percent participation.
I think that one of the more obvious reasons for the complacency is the amount of time we spend in election cycles. They might as well be year-round, with candidates and incumbents often announcing their intentions to run a year or more in advance, then furiously fundraising most of the time they’re supposed to be working on making the U.S. laws that will benefit their constituents. Freshman Republicans in Congress are required to spend four hours a day on phone-bank fundraising.
But honestly, I think a lot of it boils down to political burnout.
The fact that Trump won the presidency with the support of only 28.7 percent of America’s almost 219 million eligible voters in 2016 is absolutely shameful and if we really want to get serious about fixing a broken election system, the American electoral system needs to be scrapped entirely and replaced with a more equitable alternative so that eligible Americans will feel their vote will even matter.
The Electoral College is a process first laid out in the Constitution that came about as a compromise between having the president elected by Congress and having the president elected by a popular vote of qualified citizens. Through the Electoral College, a small group of appointed representatives chosen by the two parties, known as electors, are charged with casting one vote each for both the president and vice president. In total, there are 538 electors — 435 state-appointed reps, 100 US senators and three additional reps for DC — as dictated by the 23rd Amendment.
But the Electoral College is infamous for putting five presidents into office who lost the popular vote — most recently, George W. Bush and Donald Trump [ Trump, who lost by over 3 million votes; the combined populations of entire states (see chart) ]. This happened while Rusia provided inequitable influence onto a small number of states, so-called swing states like Florida and Ohio. So, if we’re looking to form a more perfect union, the Electoral College in its current form has got to go. Political scientists have been contemplating how to do just that since the 1880s and have made plenty of suggestions. In fact, there have been more than 700 amendments to adjust the function of the Electoral College, though none have gained significant traction to date. So, we’re even complacent about how to fix complacency-driven elections? That’s just pitiful.
Then there’s our current crop of voting machines that simply cannot ensure any level of accuracy. According to a 2015 report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, an estimated 42 states are using ballot machines that are more than a decade old. 13 states employ electronic voting machines that do not produce paper ballots, making post-election audits impossible. And given that 20 percent of voters in 2016 cast their ballots on such machines, according to The Washington Post, we have no way to guarantee that their votes were not tampered with by the Russians or even simply “flipped” due to the obsolete programming of the voting machines themselves.
Of course, this begs the question, where are they going to get the money? A 2017 study from the Brennan Center estimates that updating the balloting system nationwide would cost $1 billion. Just updating the paperless machines would run between $150 million and $400 million. And Republicans have successfully convinced at least 40% of the country that any money spent by government, other than on defense,[some of which the Pentagon doesn’t even want] is wasted.
And in the current political climate, even though we have an all-Republican government, Congress is incapable of passing even mundane legislation. The only time this Republican Congress has agreed on anything is when it shelled out a trillion dollars’ worth of additional national debt to give the wealthiest donors even more money to stash in other countries or allowing Trump’s Cabinet and family to spend millions in taxpayer dollars to needlessly pamper themselves with extravagant travel, dwarfing every other 8-year administration spending in Trump’s first year.
Twenty-one states have implemented online-registration systems in an obvious effort to reverse this trend, but even that effort has garnered less than stellar results. “Online voter registration saves taxpayer dollars, increases the accuracy of voter rolls, and provides a convenient option for Americans who wish to register or update their information,” states a Pew Charitable Trusts study from that same year.
In fact, The League of Women Voters has been pushing to have online registration programs be more inclusive than what they currently are,” LWV representatives said, “making sure all NVRA — National Voter Registration Act — agencies are tied into the online system.”
The League of Women Voters also argues in favor of early-voting practices, and polling places that include evening and weekend hours, especially the weekend before Election Day. As they point out, “As an example, in New Hampshire there’s no early voting; they just happened to have a serious northeaster [on March 13th] and there was a little town election but hardly anyone could go vote.”
That, of course, would be great, but actually motivating voters to get out to the polls seems to be the biggest challenge, which mystifies me in that the results have such enormous consequences. Perhaps the very process of voting offers the most difficult of all challenges.
Unfortunately, even getting out the vote isn’t enough to reform our political system, especially when you have to account for the effects of gerrymandering, the process by which a political party redraws congressional districts to favor its candidates based on the most recent US census results. Gerrymandering has long been a political tool in the US.
In 2011, Pennsylvania Republicans redrew the state’s districts. In 2012, Democrats won 51 percent of the state’s popular vote for the US House of Representatives yet only garnered 5 of the available 18 seats. Several Courts have finally started declaring some of the most glaring partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional.
It wasn’t until this January, in response to a lawsuit by the League of Women Voters, that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared the GOP-drawn districts to be unconstitutional, concluding that they were “aimed at achieving unfair partisan gain” and undermined “voters’ ability to exercise their right to vote in free and ‘equal’ elections, if the term is to be interpreted in any credible way,” striking down the gerrymandering technique known as “packing”.
The GOP then attempted an appeal to the US Supreme Court but was rebuffed, meaning that the current court-ordered districts will stand for the time being.
Pennsylvania isn’t the only place where the GOP has sought unfair electoral advantages in recent years. The US Supreme Court has also reviewed cases from Wisconsin and Maryland and recently interceded in North Carolina as well. Gerrymandering is a longstanding and widespread electoral tradition practiced by both parties but regardless, it should be outlawed and makes no logical sense nor should have ever been considered as part of a voting process.
But for all the electoral challenges the republic currently faces, numerous nonpartisan organizations and individuals are working tirelessly to improve our voting system. The League of Women Voters has long lobbied for automatic voter registration, a valuable enfranchisement tool that drastically increases the political voice of America’s most-often overlooked populations — a mechanism that states across the nation are increasingly adopting on their own.
Rice University Professor Dan Wallach and his team have spent the better part of a decade building The STAR-Vote System which offers the possibility of elections free from foreign interference — but they can’t find a vendor to produce it. And Wendy K. Tam Cho, a professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has brought congressional redistricting into the Supercomputing Age with the development of PEAR. But despite its ambitious goals, that project must reckon with technical issues of its own before being brought online for the public’s benefit.
And I won’t even begin to address Citizens United, which was the Supreme Court’s most democracy-busting decision in the history of democracy and made it legal for the wealthy and corporations to literally buy elections.
These are all examples of the reforms that can be accomplished by putting country over party. But while they’re certainly not alone, these efforts aren’t nearly enough. American democracy cannot flourish with only a fraction of its citizens being politically engaged. In order to scale these solutions to the point where they can positively impact both political institutions and the people whom those institutions are supposed to protect, all Americans must make their voices heard to their elected officials, whether through voting or by protest. Because if we don’t fix our democracy, nobody else will.