Who is eligible to vote?
In theory democracy is simple enough. One person, one vote and the majority wins. But politics make democracy hard in practice. Start with the fundamental question – who has the right to vote? Originally that was only adult white males (the Constitution didn’t require property ownership). With time ex- slaves (15th amendment, 1870) and then women (19th, 1920) received the franchise. Our current voter profile was finally set when the residents of Washington DC gained Electoral College votes (23rd, 1961) and the franchise was guaranteed to 18 year-olds (26th, 1971).
Actually there is more. Ex-felons’ right to vote depends on where they live. If you don’t think that matters consider the 2000 Presidential election. It’s possible that, if Florida had let ex-felons vote, Gore would have been the President.
If you have the right to vote, does that mean you will be able to?
A putative constitutional right to vote doesn’t guarantee your ability to vote; states have and continue to put hurdles on the way to the ballot box. Before the Supreme Court struck them down, literacy tests and poll taxes disqualified the poor and uneducated. (In a cynical exercise, some states ‘grandfathered’ voters if they or an ancestor was eligible to vote in 1867 – before blacks got the franchise).
People in power will rarely cede any advantage. When one means of suppressing votes is barred another will spring up. In states dominated by one party, the primaries are the election. Some state political parties barred blacks from voting in these primaries arguing that as private entities their primaries weren’t subject to federal election law. Today ID requirements and cumbersome registration practices serve to restrict the vote.
Physical impediments can lower turnout. Targeted precincts may have fewer voting machines or longer journeys to a voting site. Voting methods or the ballot itself can confuse the voter. (2000 introduced us to the now infamous ‘butterfly ballot’ and dangling, swinging and pregnant chads.)
When the fox guards the hen house
Independent management of voting would solve these problems, but voting conditions are controlled by politicians. It is hard to pretend that democracy is legitimate when the ‘ins’ have significant influence over the process that keeps them ‘in’. Florida 2000 is once again an egregious example. Katherine Harris, who as Secretary of State was responsible for elections, called a halt to the recounts with George W. Bush 537 votes ahead. Fair enough. Except that in addition to her state position she was also co-chair of Bush’s Florida campaign.
Populations increase and decrease, people move. Every ten years the census counts these changes and congressional seat allocation by state is adjusted. Congressional districts are redrawn to account for the adjustment and the movement of people within the state. Five states have independent or ad-hoc committees to redraw the boundaries; Florida (ironically) has some rules on redistricting. But, as long as the process doesn’t impact minority rights, in 44 states the party in power has carte blanche to redraw the districts.
The election map is distorted to lump opposition voters together in a few districts while leaving allies a majority in the bulk of them. This political adventurism is as old as the Republic. Its name, gerrymandering, is a legacy of a Congressional district drawn by Elbridge Gerry’s party in 1812 Massachusetts that reminded some of a salamander.
The process and how it renders many voters irrelevant
In the US representation is ‘first past the post’. The make-up of Congress is based on a district by district result and not the overall vote. (In ‘proportional representation’ a party is awarded seats based on its percentage of the popular vote.) Voters who live in ‘safe districts’ are therefore irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if their representative is elected with 62% or 92% of the vote, it still just one seat, with no additional national significance.
Our political system was created to balance the rights of small and large states which leaves voters from small states with a disproportionate amount of influence. 564,000 Wyomingites have the same clout in the Senate as 37 million Californians.
This disparity in influence is compounded in the general election. The President is elected, not directly, but by a vote of the Electoral College. And because each state’s electoral votes is equal to its number of Representatives plus two Senators, voters in small states again profit. Each of Vermont’s 3 Electoral College votes represents 208,000 Vermonters; each of Texas’s 38 votes represents 661,000 Texans.
Adding to this disparity is the custom of giving all of a state’s electoral votes to the winner. The citizens of states that consistently vote for the same party have no role in electing the President. Massachusetts last voted Republican in 1984. Kansas last voted Democrat in 1964.
Democracy in America
Democracy in America is compromised by disenfranchisement; it is compromised by political interference; it is compromised by the very design of our government. But the greatest damage to our democracy comes from a self-inflicted wound. Half of us don’t vote. And of those that do, many don’t pay much attention. Winston Churchill was scathing: “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter”.
Jefferson however had a solution: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” Which might explain why many politicians are so strident in discrediting teachers and the media; if you cannot stop people voting then at least keep them uneducated and ill-informed.