Is Our Democracy Even Legitimate?
By Jasper Smith (January 23, 2017)
Representative John Lewis recently raised questions about the legitimacy of the new president. For me, this raised a larger question about the legitimacy of our democracy and elections. There are international standards for what constitutes a free and fair election that have been agreed upon by the countries of the world and to which our country asks other countries to abide. If we apply these standards to ourselves, how well do we do? As I will outline below, not well.
Access to the ballot and the poll– There are inadequate protections to ensure our constitutional right to vote. Many states have implemented voter suppression efforts that have repeatedly been found to disproportionately impact already disenfranchised communities. These measures include voter identification requirements, restricted access to polling stations particularly in urban areas, restrictions on early voting, and scrubbing of voter registration rolls. We do not have a national system of voting by mail, which would increase access. Election Day is not a national holiday so many people have to work full days then when they go to vote may have to wait in line for hours due to an inadequate number of polling places. If after working eight hours and waiting in line for another seven hours as happened in Florida or five hours as happened in Arizona, you finally get to vote only to have your vote invalidated by a broken or malfunctioning voting machine. Long wait times and broken polling machines have been found to be disproportionately in predominantly urban African-American and Latino districts. Even properly functioning voting machines have not met minimal standards for security in many states. The average wait time for Latinos in Maricopa County, Arizona in this election was four hours. For predominantly white voters in suburban and rural districts, the average wait time was less than 15 minutes. Minority voters are six times more likely than white voters to wait over an hour. Additionally, over four million US citizens have no voting representation in Congress because they live in Puerto Rico, Washington DC, or other territories. That is a population the size of my home state of Oregon and a number larger than the population of more than twenty other states. Again, this is disenfranchisement of predominantly African-Americans and Latinos. Both Puerto Rico and Washington DC have voted overwhelmingly for statehood in popular referendums. In many states, people with a past history of a felony conviction and people who are incarcerated are denied voting rights. In a country that has by far the highest rate of incarceration in the world and has for decades, and whose history of incarceration has shown gross racial inequity and discrimination, this is a significant number of people. To add to this injustice, the incarcerated population of people who can’t vote counts towards the representation in the districts where the jail or prison is located which is largely rural predominantly white districts leading to their over representation. Many countries have automatic or mandatory voter registration to ensure equal access to the ballot. Some countries even have mandatory voting to ensure equal representation. The US has grossly inadequate protections to allow access to the ballot and to the polling booth.
Equal Weight of Vote– International standards require that each vote has equal weight. In the United States, the least populous 25 states could control the Senate by representing merely 15% of the US population. The least populous 30 states could have a filibuster proof majority representing less than 25% of the population. This inequity translates into overrepresentation in the Electoral College which led to the situation we just had where the president was elected by the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3,000,000 votes and garnering support from only 26% of eligible voters. Gerrymandering has led to the drawing of districts that allow a minority of voters to have a majority of representation which thwarts the will of the voters and gives unequal weight to each vote. The US has developed no enforceable national standards to ensure fair representation in the drawing of districts and many have been found to be grossly unfair and to disenfranchise primarily African-American and Latino voters. Gerrymandered districts are based on census data and can lock in inequity for a decade before new census data becomes available.
Equal Opportunity– The US does not guarantee equal access to being a candidate on the ballot, particularly for third party candidates. We do not guarantee equal access to media and allow our elections to be dominated by those who contribute the most money. A recent Stanford study showed that decisions by Congress are determined by the will of the donors not the voters. The interests of donors are represented a majority of the time and the interests and will of the voters have virtually no discernible impact on the decisions of Congress. Top donors have virtual veto power in Congress. They get about half of what they want and none of what they don’t want. Many countries comply with international standards through the public financing of campaigns. In the US, the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court gives virtually unrestricted influence over our elections by donors, including foreign donors who don’t get to vote in our elections. In most jurisdictions, our elections are administered by partisan elected officials rather than neutral and impartial administrators as required by international agreements. In the US, the interests of the wealthy elites are well-represented in our government but there is little access to representation for the will of the majority.
We may have been leaders and innovators in democracy over 200 years ago, but the sad truth is that we have not kept up with the times and we do not have a legitimate democracy under international standards. Many countries have surpassed us and can make a more legitimate claim to being the most democratic country in the world. Even our early experiments in democracy were deeply cynical and skeptical of democracy and we have baked into our system many protections for slavery that still serve the interests of white supremacy and wealthy elites, but do not serve the interests of democracy or the people. If we want to have legitimate democratically elected leaders in the future, we will need to shore up our democratic processes for elections.