First Published June 2018
Just recently, the five conservative members of the Supreme Court upheld Ohio’s practice of purging its voter rolls based on a failure to vote in previous elections. The state mails a notice to anyone who does not vote in two consecutive years; if the person does not respond and fails to vote or update their registration during the next four years, the state removes that person from the voter registration list. Ohio’s voter purge process effectively disenfranchises thousands of eligible voters. Most of these voters are poor and minority citizens who generally vote sparingly for a variety of reasons. The fundamental essence of a true democracy is that citizens retain the right to vote or not vote. This egregious vote of the Supreme Court hardly warranted much discussion in the media who are obsessed by the cult of Trump and his daily tweets and the Mueller Russia probe.
The Mueller Russia is a great big Red Herring that is keeping the media and the liberal left in full throttle conniptions, not to mention the significant money and other resources being spent to get to the bottom of how Russia undermined democracy in this country. I think the bigger threat to democracy in the United States is ourselves and not the Russians with perhaps the Republican Party playing a significantly bigger role than Donald Trump. By focusing our collective attention and much money on the possible collusion of the Trump Presidential campaign with Russia and Putin, we are ensuring that this Red Herring keeps us away from dealing with our own, and much more egregious behavior vis-a-vis democracy. We have created many ways in which our citizens cannot actually exercise their fundamental right to vote in an election. The recent Supreme Court ruling is the latest attack on our democracy.
First, we have almost all our elections on Tuesdays when most people have to work, and even close the polls in many states too early for those returning from work to cast their ballots. Most nations in the world have their citizens vote on a Sunday or a national holiday, including France, Germany, India, Japan and Russia. In fact, the largest 100 countries with the exception of the U.S. and U. K. have elections on Saturday, Sunday or a national holiday. It is much easier for people to vote on a non-working day, especially those at the lower end of the economic scale for whom there is always a trade-off between losing their daily or hourly wage and voting. Although there are some progressive employers who give their employees time to vote without docking their pay, many do not. It is no wonder that internationally the U.S. has one of the lowest percentage voter turnout (55.7% in 2016) among voting age population; compare this to over 65% in most western democracies.
Second, there are ways in which minorities, especially African Americans and the rural poor are actively restricted from voting. Even though the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, many states have been trying to undermine it through violent means early on, and several innovative non-violent means more recently. Under the guise of voter fraud, 14 states adopted measures to restrict voting before the 2016 election. A recent study by the Center for American Progress provides numerous examples of democracy being undermined, with voter suppression mostly aimed at minorities. For example, North Carolina decided to close over 150 polling stations in counties with large black populations thus making it difficult to travel the enormous distance to the nearest polling booth, and the time taken waiting in line to vote very long. Texas adopted strict ID laws which allowed one to choose concealed weapons permits as acceptable form of identification but not student IDs. Also “under the guise of preventing illegal voting”, several states removed names from voter registration lists disproportionately targeting people of color. Many states require driver’s license to vote when many poor voters don’t even drive. The U.S. consciously makes it difficult for minorities to register and vote; thus less than 65% of the eligible voters even bother to register. The recent Supreme Court ruling will lower this number.
Third, there is regular redistricting in almost every state. While the Republicans have practiced it quite aggressively in recent years, the Democrats are no better when they are in power. American attempts to tailor district lines for political gain stretch back to the country’s very origin. Patrick Henry, who opposed the new Constitution, tried to draw district lines to deny a seat in the first Congress to James Madison, the Constitution’s primary author. Elbridge Gerry, the Democratic-Republican governor of Massachusetts, was the key architect who promoted and signed the redistricting plan to ensure his party’s domination of the state senate. Even though the attempt failed the term “Gerrymandering” was born. Gerrymandering undermines true democracy: It is akin to politicians choosing the people who will vote for them rather than voters choosing who will represent them as it should be in a true democracy.
Fourth, the United States is only one of 4 countries among the top 50 high-income countries that completely bans convicted felons from voting even after they are rehabilitated and released from prison; the others are Armenia, Belgium and Chile. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 2,220,300 adults were incarcerated in US federal and state prisons, and county jails in 2013; additionally, 4,751,400 adults in 2013 were on probation or on parole. The numbers in 2017 are likely to be more. Thus more than 7 million adults in the U.S. are disenfranchised, a very significant number (around 3%) for country that considers itself a beacon of democracy. Surely we believe that a term served in prison rehabilitates the inmates making them able to reintegrate into civil society.
If we really want to make sure that no one undermines our democracy, it is imperative that we look inside to ourselves and reform our electoral system so that everyone gets the chance to exercise their rights to vote and the politicians don’t play self-interested games. Spending enormous amount of time, money and media attention on whether or not Russia interfered with the election will simply distract us from the more important job of healing our democracy.