It’s Election Day in the United States, and as the day unfolds, all eyes will be on the men and women streaming into the polls to cast their ballots. News broadcasts will be devoted to counting up all the votes cast, and trying to divine who came out to vote and why.
But American elections aren’t actually about the people who vote. They’re about the people who don’t. Politicians are almost always chosen by less than a majority of the population. Laws and practices that exclude large numbers of potential voters determine who wins and who loses.
That’s by design. Voter exclusion is hard-wired into what is, on close inspection, a very undemocratic system of governance. The U.S. Constitution placed the selection of presidents in the hands of “electors,” not the people, and it offered no clear protections for a citizen’s right to vote. In the original Constitution, states retained enormous latitude to determine who went to the polls and who did not.
And although amendments eventually extended voter protection to black Americans, women and people 18 and over, even these guarantees were only partially enforced. Communities nationwide used poll taxes, literacy tests, inconvenient voting locations and onerous registration requirements to discourage voting by particular groups, especially African Americans and other minorities.
The real fraud in American voting is not illegally cast votes but legally blocked ones. Our history has taught us all too well how to keep people away from the polls, despite their constitutional rights. Even a half-century after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, tens of thousands of citizens are denied the franchise because of insufficient proof of identity, felony convictions or other state stipulations — all of which are designed today, as they were in the past, to keep certain people from casting their ballots.
“Certain people” means, most obviously, people of color, who are told they are not welcome as voters at every stage in the process, from demeaning rhetoric about their “fake” votes to convoluted registration processes to intimidation at the polls. For many Mexican Americans, it feels safer just to stay home. That’s why states such as Texas have electorates that remain dominated by white votes even as their populations become rapidly more diverse.
But “certain people” also means those without access to wealth. The mobilization of money for elected office makes dominant groups even more powerful. The sheer scale of wealth in the hands of several billionaires has allowed them, and their political action committees (PACs), to smother competitors. As the rich have become so much richer, they have made their votes count more, and the votes of others count less. Donald Trump began his presidential campaign as a critic of big political donors, but he and his supporters in the Republican Party benefited from their money in the election.
By the time poor citizens vote, the candidates have already been vetted by the wealthy donors who are necessary for any person running to have a chance. That means Election Day is really about choosing among candidates handpicked by the super wealthy (say, Trump or Hillary Clinton), rather than candidates who reflect the needs and experiences of citizens.
And this dominance by wealth becomes more true with each successive electoral cycle. As candidates require more and more money for advertising and social media, the influence of money grows. Parties have always chosen elites, but now fundraising crowds out other qualities of leadership. You cannot run if you cannot bring in big bucks, immediately.
Gerrymandering likewise nullifies votes, erecting exclusionary boundaries between voters and their representatives. During the decennial district-drawing process for national, state and local representatives, the politicians in power choose their voters, rather than the other way around. Incumbent legislators make certain that their districts are dominated by like-minded citizens, and they limit the power of opposition groups by splitting their presence among as many districts as possible.
Although gerrymandering goes back to the earliest days of the republic, it has never distorted electoral outcomes as much as it does today. Wisconsin and Texas are two of many states where elected representatives are far more Republican than the voters. That is because Republican majorities in both legislatures set it up that way, exaggerating and entrenching their power with the lines they drew across the landscape. New computer technologies have turned this process into a precise science, limiting voter choice wherever possible.
These structural roadblocks make clear how little say citizens have in who represents them. The system is indeed “rigged,” but the rigging benefits the powerful, the wealthy and the extremes — not the vast majority of Americans.
Trump’s presidency is a result of this system. He received less than a majority of national votes, in an election where only a little more than half of all eligible citizens voted. His approval rating is consistently below 40 percent, meaning that most Americans oppose what he is doing. His strongest supporters in Congress and in the public come from some of the most gerrymandered congressional districts, saturated with money from a few gargantuan national Republican donors. Trump isn’t an enemy of the swamp — he is a product of it.
Our political troubles are a result of this long-standing historical flaw — a flaw we must address if we wish to build a true democracy. And never has the issue been more urgent. Thanks to a system that rewards unrepresentative government, the United States has become one of the least democratic societies in the Western industrial world. Our jammed and polarized politics are a consequence of that structural problem.
In the aftermath of the terribly divisive 2016 election and the continuous tests of democracy that have followed, we should use this Election Day to discuss not just candidates, but serious changes to the system of choosing our leaders. The Constitution is not a useful guide here. We must turn instead to the democratic principles that have long defined our society in aspiration more than reality.
To enact our democratic principles, we can begin by learning from our history and fixing some of our system’s long-standing flaws. We should make voting easier, with the simplest possible registration, easily accessible voting locations and weekend voting for those who work traditional hours.
We can combine access to the polls with more rigorous protections against hacking and tampering. In fact, our system makes it difficult for citizens to vote, while remaining terribly vulnerable to illegal intrusions. We can reverse that equation — if we can move away from the canard of “in-person voter fraud.” There is no evidence, despite repeated efforts to manufacture it, that people go to the polls to vote illegally. The real fraud that turns elections and violates citizens’ rights is that people — tens of thousands of people — are prevented from voting.
In addition, Citizens United notwithstanding, the democratic case is very strong for legal action to limit how money is spent in elections and to ensure that voting districts empower as many voters as possible. The current crooked playing field must be leveled for candidates who are not beholden to billionaire donors and those who represent citizens traditionally underrepresented because of gerrymandering. Bipartisan expert panels empowered to regulate campaign finance and gerrymandering will not be perfect, but they can do a much better job of assessing reasonable limits on money and exclusionary boundaries, rather than leaving decisions solely to those with money and power.
That is what real populism looks like.
In our nation’s greatest moment of peril, the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and other Americans looked to the deepest purposes of our democracy to define a new birth of freedom, one that sought to leave behind the nation’s original sin and build a better, freer country. Now is the time for Americans to do the same again, looking to our deepest purposes to reform the institutions and practices that empower the few over the many. Otherwise, we will have to discard our role as democracy’s leader and accept our new position as its laggard.