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Democracy Under Siege: Systemic Flaws May Override Record Electoral Participation

The U.S. electoral system is not set up to facilitate a truly representative democracy and has been further undermined by those with a vested interest in a low turnout

We’re the only country in the world — bar none — of 175 real democracies, where the elections are run by the people who are on the ballot. (Photo: Theresa Thompson/ Creative Commons)

We’re the only country in the world — bar none — of 175 real democracies, where the elections are run by the people who are on the ballot. (Photo: Theresa Thompson/ Creative Commons)

Never has there been more at stake in an election than the coming midterms. And whether we see a mandate to step up the Trump agenda or a resistance-led Blue Wave depends on voter turnout — which, in the U.S., trails that of most developed countries, even in presidential elections. And while this year is poised to break records for midterm turnout, it will still be underwhelming from a global perspective.

The question driving many this year is how — short of being Taylor Swift — to turn that trend around? It turns out people are employing everything from flash mobs to food trucks in their get-out-the-vote efforts; venues have ranged from beaches to music festivals — not to mention a troupe of superheroes who crashed the Comic Con.

Even with the ferment of activity surrounding GOTV and political campaigns — and even if, as analysts predict, record numbers of young people and people of color turn out, the Blue Wave may still be headed for rocky shores.

That’s because the U.S. electoral system is not set up to facilitate a truly representative democracy on many levels, and it has been further undermined over the years by those with a vested interest in a low turnout, say critics who are working to reform a system they say skews to the right. They point to the gutting of the Voting Rights Act and voter purges, systematic gerrymandering throughout the country, a built-in conflict of interest in the system and an Electoral College system that overrides millions of popular votes.

“We’re the only country in the world — bar none — of 175 real democracies, where the elections are run by the people who are on the ballot,” noted Bob Stein, Rice University political scientist. “For example, Stan Stanart is running Harris County’s election. Stan Stanart is a Republican candidate for re-election. I’m sure he’s an honest guy — I’m just saying, the appearance doesn’t look good.”

He pointed to the voter suppression scandal currently unfolding in Georgia as a prime example.

“I think we can see it in the Georgia elections; we have to wonder why the secretary of state is voiding new registrations and not encouraging people to vote,” he said. “Conflict of interest is both an appearance and a reality.”

If it’s a reality, Secretary of State Brian Kemp is reducing voter turnout — selectively — by invalidating disproportionately Democratic registrations. If it’s just an appearance, that, too affects voter turnout. If you think the people running the election are partisan, you may become demoralized and simply not think the vote is fair. Nothing hurts voter turnout more than thinking your vote doesn’t matter.

In Belgium’s last presidential election, turnout was 89 percent of registered voters. Compare that to the last two U.S. presidential elections, when voter participation was just a little over 61 percent. In the last midterm election, turnout was a dismal 36.6 percent, the lowest since World War II.

“You ask why turnout is low,” said Debra Cleaver, founder of Vote.org, a nonpartisan nonprofit digital voting organization that uses digital technology to increase voter turnout. “It’s because it’s too complicated to vote in the United States — and I would go further to say that is intentional on behalf of elected officials.”

Cleaver questioned the need for the current administration’s focus on voting reform.

“Voter ID laws do not solve an actual problem — unless the problem is black and brown people casting ballots,” she said. “Over the past two decades, documented in-person voter fraud has been extremely rare. Statistically, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit voter fraud.”

Adam Eichen, co-author of the book Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want, points to a number of ways to build voter turnout, beginning with how we register voters. “Our voter registration system is antiquated and deters voting,” Eichen said. “We’re in the 21st century; election officials don’t need multiple weeks to process a registration form. Voters, many of whom have busy lives, should be able to register to vote on Election Day.”

Automatic voter registration, like that used in many countries, could bring on an estimated 50 million new potential voters in one fell swoop. Eligible citizens in these are automatically registered to vote unless they choose to decline. Since Oregon adopted this approach in 2016, its voter registration has quadrupled; 12 other states and the District of Columbia have followed suit.

Making Election Day a national holiday is another approach we could learn from other countries. In the last midterms, about 35 percent of nonvoters reported that scheduling conflicts with work or school kept them from the polls. ElectionDay.org, a project of Vote.org, encourages companies to give their employees Election Day off, and more than 250 have signed on.

Public financing is also key, said Eichen. Allowing voters to participate through innovative “Democracy Voucher” public financing programs like the one in Seattle could foster engagement. There every voter is given four $25 vouchers to donate to the candidate of their choice. “Beyond democratizing political financing, the program encourages residents to research candidates and decide whom they want to financially support,” he said. “This should lead to more of an affinity for the political process, while also expanding who has a voice. In Seattle, one candidate even reportedly collected donations from the homeless population.”

None of this, of course, will have much impact in Texas on Nov. 6. But there are already indications that for this year, at least, the push to get people to the polls is having an impact. A surge in voter turnout for the spring midterm primary was one indicator. And a poll from Tufts University showed high levels of young people, usually the least likely to vote, paying attention and planning to vote.

By the second day of Texas’ early midterm voting this month, the in-person vote and mail-in ballots in six counties had already exceeded the total early voting in 2016’s presidential election.

Based on record levels of traffic on the Vote.org website, Cleaver expects a record turnout.

“I think that’s a sign of frustration with the government,” she said. “Normally we’ve been able to trust that we’re Americans and our government officials aren’t corrupt. That trust is no longer a given in the United States, and so I think people are paying more attention. I’m trying not to be dramatic but it does seem like representational democracy is at stake.”

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Tracy L. Barnett

Tracy L. Barnett is a freelance writer based in Guadalajara, Mexico, and the founding editor of The Esperanza Project, an online magazine dedicated to Democracy, Environmental Justice and Sustainability in the Americas.

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