“Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs. Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy and it has become clear that they are the target of our adversaries who seek to sow discord and undermine our way of life.” These words were spoken by the Trump administration’s Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, in early August 2018. And in recent months, how often have we heard and speculated about the serious harm that Russia has caused to US elections, that Russia is responsible for Trump becoming our president, that Russia will tamper with the upcoming midterms and somehow again subvert US “democracy”?
Well, guess what – the Republican Party and the US Supreme Court have done far more harm to US elections in recent years than Russia could have ever dreamed of doing. What’s that Secretary Nielsen said -“Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy”? Well, if that is so, why don’t we do all we can to make our elections “free and fair”, instead of corrupting them by making it steadily more difficult to vote and warping election outcomes?
In probably the most important election of our lifetimes, we went to the polls in November 2016 and voted for a new president. Well, at least some of us voted. Depending on what state you lived in, you may have had to present a picture ID which you maybe didn’t have; you may have found early voting times reduced, lines impossibly long, registration restricted, polling places reduced or locations changed. Or you may have been stunned to find that your name had been removed from the voting rolls.
What could be more fundamental in a democracy than the right to vote? Isn’t voting the foundation of representative government? Why then do we have a patchwork of voting regulations throughout the states? Why can someone register and vote the same day in some states and not in others? Why do voters have to show a picture ID in some states ? Why are there more stringent residency requirements in some states than in others? Why can you vote early in some states or vote by mail but maybe not in yours? HBO’s John Oliver captures and describes many of these problem in his usual profane and humorous way.
Some additional questions about voting in the United States – why is Tuesday, of all days, the election day everywhere? Why a workday, which places a major burden on working class voters and voters working on hourly contracts who can’t afford to take time off? Why not a weekend day when it would be easier for most people to vote? And why are national elections held in November? Perhaps summer might be better for everyone. In most of the world’s democracies, voting is held on a weekend day or on a special voting holiday to make it easier for its citizens to vote, but not in the United States, the “world’s greatest democracy”.
All of these questions and concerns, all of these obstacles and impediments to voting have been instituted by us, not the Russians. Republican governors and legislatures have striven mightily to limit the vote, not extend it, because in limiting the vote by requiring a picture ID or limiting locations where you can vote, or other measures, means limiting the vote of minority populations which vote predominantly Democratic.
And these same Republican governors and legislatures have effectively gerrymandered voting districts in many states, resulting in candidates choosing their voters, rather than voters choosing candidates and thus rendering many districts uncompetitive. The “blue wave” anticipated by many in the 2018 midterms may not happen at all, despite an expected upsurge in Democratic votes. As a recent Times article noted, in 2006 a five and a half point lead in the national vote was enough to pick up 31 seats in the House of Representatives. But now, because of partisan gerrymandering accomplished in 2010, an increase of this size would net only 13. In the upcoming midterms Democrats will need an 11 point margin nationally to win back the House, a very difficult margin to attain.
The corrupt effect of partisan gerrymandering is perfectly exemplified in North Carolina. Republicans in 2016 won 10 of the 13 House districts – 77 percent – despite getting just 53 percent of the statewide vote, nearly the same result as in 2014. The Ohio vote from 2016 provides another example. Republicans won 12 of the state’s 16 House seats with just 56 percent of the vote. Since being gerrymandered by its Republican legislature after the 2010 census, the GOP has won the same 12 seats with Democrats winning the same four seats in each of the last three elections, despite a narrow margin statewide. The pernicious effect of gerrymandering, which really is disenfranchising a sizable portion of a state’s electorate is graphically explained in this Washington Post video.
A different kind of question people may ask is why vote at all? Many vote faithfully like good citizens should but nothing seems to change. In an era of billion dollar campaigns and apparently limitless campaign contributions by corporations, millionaires and billionaires, a person may be rightfully skeptical of what their individual vote can accomplish. Is my Representative or Senator going to heed my call, letter or email or attend to the call, letter or email from Jamie Dimon, Charles Koch or Sheldon Adelson or a member of the armies of lobbyists representing other corporate interests? In addition to voter suppression, cynicism resulting logically from these conditions certainly contributes to our disgracefully low level of voter participation in elections, usually around 50 percent.
But political optimists really do believe that the vote can dramatically change politics. After all, the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court could be reversed by a constitutional amendment and such an amendment would be passed by voting. Money could be taken out of politics in the same way if we voted to do so. The ballot could limit use of the media for election purposes as it is in most EU countries. And public financing of campaigns similar to European countries could be established through the franchise. Our useless Congress could again govern and actually pass some helpful laws through debate and compromise, if we placed the right individuals in office through the vote. And gerrymandered congressional districts described above which are responsible for much of our congressional paralysis could be rendered illegal through the vote.
So the vote, the franchise, the ballot, are fundamental to the functioning of our government and many feel that we should be doing everything we can to make voting easier and get more people to vote. But instead what we doing is making voting more difficult and more complex. Indeed, voter suppression has been called the “Civil Rights Issue of this Era”
Another perennial voting issue concerns who should vote – a tension set up by the writers of our constitution between the “Hamiltonians” and the “Jeffersonians”, whether the franchise should be granted solely to the educated and propertied citizens or to everyone regardless of education or wealth. Last year, the New Yorker featured an article about selected first time voters and who they have chosen to vote for and why. And reading about the guy who was voting for Donald Trump because “Hillary will take my guns away and I need them to hunt every year for my food” made me wonder why the impact of his vote was the same as mine. Yes, historically there have been proposals from time to time to more heavily weight the votes of educated voters over those of the uneducated which seem tempting. However, all considered, I strongly support everyone voting, regardless of education, wealth or social standing. I really do think that a majority of the population as a whole has a great deal more common sense to ultimately lead us in the right direction than people of wealth and property who will simply vote their narrow interests. The wisdom of the general populace is validated in nationwide polls on such major issues as healthcare, taxation, education, the military budget, to name but a few. In fact if Federal laws were established by national plebiscite, rather than by a congress beholden to big money and special interests, we would likely have a much better country.
Which brings me back to another concern about Election Day. Why on earth is our participation so shamefully low? Come hell or high water, “the most important election of our lifetime”, or whatever, voter participation in the US hovers around 50 percent, and that is for presidential election years. In off-years, voter turnout is far worse, usually 40 percent or so. In 2012, another of the many “most important elections ever”, voter turnout was an anemic 53 percent of eligible voters. We boast to the world about our “vibrant and thriving democracy”, an example the rest of the world should follow. Well actually based on participation in our democracy, the very definition of the term, our democracy is barely breathing.
During the 2016 election, there were over 224 million American citizens over the age of 18 in the United States, and yet only around 157 million were registered to vote. And of these registered voters, only 58 percent bothered to vote in this “most important election in history”.
Well again, rather than make voting easy, we seem to do all we can to make it more difficult and more complex. Most people think that to vote in the US is simple – if you are a citizen, if you are over 18 years and registered, you can vote. But in fact, even if you meet this criteria, you may be turned away at the polls. Presently, 34 states maintain laws that request or require citizens to show arbitrarily specific forms of identification and in ten of those states the laws are very strict. So many Americans who do not have the time or the money to obtain these forms of ID are unable to vote. In fact, Wisconsin’s Attorney General claimed that his state’s strict voter ID law was responsible for throwing that crucial state’s electoral vote to Trump in 2016.
Voting integrity is certainly another reason for low turnout. Why should I bother to vote when my vote may be inadvertently discarded by unreliable voting machines run by incompetent officials? Last May the Georgia Secretary of State office reported a precinct in northeastern Georgia as having 276 registered voters ahead of the state’s primary elections in May. After the election it reported that 670 ballots were cast, a quite amazing 243 percent turnout. Later, the numbers were changed to 3704 registered voters, reflecting a likely more accurate turnout of around 18 percent. Who is his right mind can trust a system this faulty? This fall 43 states will use voting machines that are no longer manufactured and consequently for which spare parts are difficult or impossible to find. Thirteen states use voting machines that do not provide a paper record of votes cast. Good luck if machines break down or a recount is needed. Also, Georgia’s entire voting structure, yes, Georgia again, which was outsourced to a private company, Center for Election Systems, was shown to be extremely vulnerable to hackers. If I were a Georgia voter, I’d stay home. Wait a minute, also in Georgia’s Randolph County, where 60 percent of residents are black and nearly a third live in poverty, announced their intention to close seven of the nine polling places because toilets and parking facilities were declared non – ADA compliant, requiring some voters to take a 30 mile round trip to one of the remaining two precincts. Really now – we are supposed to believe that officials were motivated by compliance compassion rather than voter suppression…..in a mostly black community…..in Georgia?
Another significant source of voter suppression is not allowing ex-prisoners to vote. Over six million Americans were barred from voting in the 2016 election because of “felony disenfranchisement”. In virtually every one of our states, Vermont and Maine being the only exceptions, citizens with a criminal conviction are permanently or temporarily denied their right to vote. So even if people convicted of a crime have paid their debt to society, they are generally stripped of this right of citizenship. And the array of obstacles placed in front of any ex-prisoner wishing to regain this privilege of citizenship is often very difficult to navigate. The seriousness of this type of disenfranchisement should not be underestimated. Florida, which has one of the harshest laws and also some of the most difficult barriers to surmount to regain this right, has had well over a million potential voters disenfranchised in this way during the last several presidential elections. If criminals who had served their term and had their full citizenship restored, it’s quite likely that George W. Bush would not have become president and we would not have had a trillion dollar war in Iraq nor the apparently eternal war in Afghanistan. HBO’s John Oliver discusses this problem in his usually profane and humorous, yet quite effective, manner. Relative to this, because of these laws, one in 40 American adults is ineligible to vote, nationwide, one in 13 adult African-American adults cannot vote. In Kentucky, Floria, Tennessee and Virginia, more that 20 percent of African-Americans are ineligible. It would be interesting to speculate about all the white collar crooks that are never prosecuted, but instead routinely pay huge fines for their crimes and misdeeds. I wonder if they can still vote? Incidentally, we are one of just four countries in the world that enforces post release restrictions on voting, the others being Croatia, Belgium and Armenia.
A lesser known way that Republicans have succeeded in disenfranchising voters is by preventing people from voting because they owe legal fees or court fines, of course affecting mostly poor (and likely Democratic) voters. Republican legislatures have now passed such laws in nine states with not insignificant effect on voters. For example, in Alabama more than 100,000 people who owe this money, about three percent of the voting age population, have been stricken from voting rolls. These laws are unconstitutional because they really represent a modern day kind of poll tax. Why should owing money to a government agency or being too poor to pay ever be reasons to lose voting privileges?
Many of these efforts at voter suppression have been conducted under the guise of “preventing voter fraud” which is virtually non-existent. Efforts to prove widespread fraud have been futile, the most recent being Trump’s “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity”, headed by Mike Pence and the perennial king of voter fraud claims who has come up empty time after time, Kris Kobach, former Kansas secretary of state and now candidate for governor. This commission, now thankfully disbanded, had one major objective – to prove that the huge gap in popular vote totals between Trump and Clinton were the result of “massive voter fraud”. The most extensive and painstaking examinations of voter fraud have shown it to be so small as to to totally insignificant.
The Brennan Center’s seminal report on this issue, The Truth About Voter Fraud, found that most reported incidents of voter fraud are actually traceable to other sources, such as clerical errors or bad data matching practices. The report reviewed elections that had been meticulously studied for voter fraud, and found incident rates between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent. Given this tiny incident rate for voter impersonation fraud, it is more likely, the report noted, that an American “will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”
Our voter fraud friend, Kris Kobach, was also the author and main proponent of a program called “Interstate Crosscheck”, which stripped voter rolls in participating states on the pretext that citizens were double-registered. Crosscheck has tagged an astonishing 7.2 million suspects, yet no more than four perpetrators have been charged with double voting or deliberate double registration, and even those were likely accidents rather than serious efforts to influence an election.
Interesting how some Republicans have let the cat out of the bag concerning the real reason for voter suppression – Glenn Grothman, Republican of Wisconsin, predicted that the state’s photo ID law should weaken Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the state in 2016; prior to the last presidential election Mike Turzai, Republican leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, predicted during the 2012 campaign that their voter ID law would “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done”; Don Yelton, a North Carolina Republican Party county precinct chairman, told an interviewer that in 2013 , the state’s voter ID law would “kick the Democrats in the butt”. In 2012, Jim Greer, a former Republican Party chairman, said outright that voter ID laws and cutbacks in early voting were done for “one reason and one reason only” – to suppress Democratic turnout. So it’s perfectly clear why Republicans want to suppress the vote – they want to reduce the poor and minority vote, usually Democratic, so they can retain power, while all the while lying that it’s about voter fraud.
In the meantime, some states are doing their best to make it easier to register and easier to vote while others continue efforts to repress the vote. Illinois recently became the 10th state, along with the District of Columbia, to enact automatic voter registration. Under the new law, all eligible voters will be registered to vote when they visit the Department of Motor Vehicles or other state agencies. which could add as many as one million voters to the state’s rolls. And at the other extreme, consider Texas, which is pushing relentlessly in the opposite direction. Republican lawmakers there passed in 2011, and continue to defend today, one of the nation’s most restrictive voter-ID laws. Supported by Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott and vociferously defended by Senator Ted Cruz, this law requires a state issued picture ID for all voters but will accept a Texas handgun permit while not accepting photo college ID’s. Good old Texas – it’s easy to see why in 2014 this state ranked 45th in voter registration and dead last in voter turnout.
Incredibly, our own US Supreme Court has exacerbated the the voting problem in the country. Clearly, this “final arbiter” of legislative and constitutional conflict should rule to protect democratic practices and institutions like voting. But as we have seen over the last decade or so, a majority of Justices, their uniform plain black robes failing to obscure their pro-corporate, anti-democratic leanings, have consistently ruled against the vote and consequently against democracy. Starting with the Citizens United decision, which allowed unlimited money to influence elections under the guise of “free speech”, and continuing with the McCutcheon v. FEC decision which removed the limits from individual contributions to political parties and campaigns, our Supreme Court has continued to destroy our democracy. On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act’s requirement that certain states with racist pasts had to have voting changes “pre-cleared” by the Department of Justice. Basically, Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the opinion, this protection was no longer needed because racism was over. “Over”? Come on, we all know this is nonsense – what kind of rose colored glasses is Roberts wearing? And of course, immediately after the decision, a number of these states, including Texas, immediately acted to strengthen voter ID laws to make voting more difficult, especially for the poor and people of color.
The Supreme court has refused to rule on Ohio’s egregiously gerrymandered House districts, allowing the state to continue sending a 75 percent Republican delegation to Congress supported by only slightly more than 50 percent of the vote. Also conservatives on the Supreme Court recently upheld Ohio’s strict method of removing infrequent voters from the rolls, a process that challengers of the law say disproportionately affects poor and minority voters. With its ruling in the case of Hustad v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Court’s activist majority in effect gave other Republican secretaries of state a go-ahead to resume the antidemocratic practice of purging fully qualified voters from registration rolls, just like in Ohio.
The Supreme Court also largely upheld Texas congressional and legislative maps that a lower court said discriminated against black and Hispanic voters, saying that the lower court was wrong in how it considered the challenges, and, according to Justice Alito, who wrote the opinion in the 5-to-4 decision, “did not credit the Texas legislature with a presumption of good faith”. The Court sided with the challengers over only one of the legislative districts in question.
On the issue of voter purges, a la Ohio, over the past year researchers at the Brennan Center examined data from 6,600 jurisdictions and found the median rate of purging across the country has risen from 6.2 percent of voters to 7.8 percent since 2008. That jump may seem small, but it’s statistically significant and cannot be explained by population growth. It amounts to an additional four million people being struck off voting lists.
All of this is underscored by a Harvard study that ranks American voting the worst in the western world for free and fair elections. In the “2015 Year in Elections Report”, the Electoral Integrity Project, conducted by 2000 election experts from Harvard University and the University of Sydney in Australia, defines “electoral integrity” as “agreed international principles and standards of elections, applying universally to all countries worldwide throughout the electoral cycle, including during the pre-electoral period, the campaign, and on polling day and its aftermath”. Conversely, ‘electoral malpractice’ refers to violations of electoral integrity.” In a massive study of 180 national parliamentary and presidential contests held between July 1, 2012 to December 31, 2015 in 139 countries worldwide, U.S. elections scored lower than Argentina, South Africa, Tunisia, and Rwanda — and strikingly lower than even Brazil. Specifically compared to Western democracies, U.S. elections scored the lowest, slightly worse than the U.K., while Denmark and Finland topped the list.
Clearly, for our democracy to thrive we need to change our systems of voting. Democracy should not be defined by allowing only those who are capable of figuring out how to get through a complicated system to vote. It should instead be defined as allowing the entire eligible population to vote and have a say in their government.
In order to increase voter participation and revive our dying democracy we need to Federalize all voting laws and make them apply evenly to every single state and to every citizen of voting age. They should include simple methods of automatic voter registration, removal all voting restrictions and ID requirements, regulation and standardization of methods adjusting rolls when voters move or when they die, establishing a convenient common voting day, standardizing reliable and robust voting machines impervious to hacking, requiring a paper trail for voting, universalizing early voting and voting by mail.
The removal of cynicism concerning voting and forcing our government to be responsive to the people who put them in office will require another, more difficult set of conditions – public financing of elections, total removal of private and corporate money from politics, limiting time for campaigning, limiting the use of media and making gerrymandering illegal so that every vote counts. It’s likely that we will need to drastically change the Supreme Court to accomplish this or pass a Constitutional amendment. Whether we have the will and the means to do either remains to be seen.