August 21, 2012

Last week, Judge Robert Simpson of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania refused to halt a discriminatory new state law requiring voters to show photo identification

It was the judicial equivalent of giving democracy the bird.  

Since you’re significantly more likely to be struck by lightning than encounter an actual case of voter fraud, the law is really just a solution in search of a problem. Or, rather, a political party in search of a vote to suppress.  

The ruling was rendered only more offensive by its flippant dismissal of the burden that obtaining a photo ID places on people who are young, poor, minority, elderly or some combination of these (read: Democrats). According to Simpson, requiring ID isn’t an unreasonable burden “when viewed in the broader context of the widespread use of photo ID in daily life.” Because, after all, doesn’t everybody get carded at the bar?

The Pennsylvania debacle is just the latest evidence of what Robert Reich has called our shrinking democracy. GOP legislators in 34 states have proposed voting rights restrictions that would slash the number of eligible voters this election. And it’s not just that if Republicans have their way, fewer people will be allowed to vote. If you follow the money in this campaign — and there’s plenty to follow — it becomes clear that fewer of the votes cast will matter because of the effects of an antiquated Electoral College and the increasing dominance of high-dollar donors.

How did we get here? 

It starts at the ballot box. When he signed the Voting Rights Act 47 years ago, President Johnson called the right to vote “the basic right without which all others are meaningless.”  

Apparently Johnson never met Judge Simpson.   

The Pennsylvania law’s opponents estimate that it could disenfranchise 9 percent of the state’s voters, and a recent study showed the measure would disproportionately affect African Americans and Latinos. A report by the Brennan Center for Justice estimates that as many as 5 million Americans will be kept from voting because of similar laws around the country.  Meanwhile, attacks on the Voting Rights Act are due to have their day in front of a sympathetic (not to the voters) Supreme Court in the next term. 

But decimating voter rolls is only the most visible instance of our shrinking democracy.

In the 2008 election, nearly twenty states were in play. Today, thanks to the Electoral College, the map of states that “matter” in the presidential campaign has shrunk to six or seven. According to statistician Nate Silver, this means there’s now a 34 percent chance that Ohio alone will decide the election. And once the campaigns have zeroed in on the handful of states that interest them, they focus in even more — on the six percent of Americans who are still undecided

Unless you live in one of these swing states or share a media market with one, you could be forgiven for thinking there was no presidential campaign going on at all. 

And while the number of meaningful votes shrinks, so does the number of meaningful voices. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision means that our political system now takes its cues not from the governed, but from the anonymous generosity of the most partisan of the 1 percent. And even when the donations aren’t anonymous, the picture is ugly: In July, both President Obama and Mitt Romney spent more time with high-rolling donors than they did in public events with voters. 

Few people spending more money to influence fewer voters in fewer states: That’s what shrinking democracy looks like. The only thing growing is the price tag. This is more than an election-year issue — it’s an existential crisis.  

Fortunately, it is also a problem we know how to solve. Even better, the solutions are non-partisan.

The outlines of a stimulus package for our democracy might start with universal voter registration, guaranteeing that every eligible American can get access to a ballot, along with a constitutional amendment protecting the right to vote. We could finally replace the Electoral College with a national popular vote, in the spirit of the Seventeenth Amendment that provided for the direct election of senators.

To expand democracy, we need to shrink the amount of anonymous, corporate money that goes to campaigns and candidates. New York City’s innovative public funding system, which generously matches citizen contributions, is a model for how to inject public, low-dollar donations into the political system. We must fight to transform the public air waves into a “democracy commons,” where all candidates and parties receive free air time. And we need to intensify the national grass-roots push for a constitutional amendment to remedy the Orwellian conceit that “money equals speech” and “corporations are people.”

Americans have fought and died for the right to govern themselves in an inclusive democracy. Indeed, it is the expansion of the vote — to African Americans, women, the young — that is the hallmark of our democratic experiment.

It’s time to choose whether we’re going to move closer to the promise of our founding ideals, or allow them to shrink and wither. There’s no third option: To paraphrase George W. Bush, the “winner” of the narrowest presidential election in American history (a one-vote margin, 5-4), when it comes to democracy, if you’re not for it, you’re against it.