The Electoral College is a disaster for a democracy.
—Donald J. Trump
If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.
—Shirley Chisholm, America’s first black woman elected to US Congress
The idea of democracy is simple: issues are put to voters, each person gets one vote, and whatever position gets the most votes becomes law.
Our country was not established as a direct democracy, though, and citizens aren’t given an affirmative right to vote in the US Constitution; the issue is placed in the hands of our “laboratories of democracy,” the states.
When people think of voting, they tend to think of the presidential election every four years. Many people don’t pay attention to local elections, and more and more Americans have found the political landscape so divisive that they’ve simply tuned out.
According to Pew, in a survey conducted in early 2016 of largely eligible but unregistered voters, when asked why they didn’t vote, 30 percent responded, “My one vote isn’t going to affect how things turn out”; 35 percent responded, “Voting has little to do with the way real decisions are made.”1 These attitudes indicate that our democracy is facing a real crisis of legitimacy and that expanding and improving our democracy is more critical now than ever, if we are to wrest control of our government from the hands of corporations and billionaires.
This is a crisis of legitimacy for our nation, and even worse is that many Americans are tuning out simply because they see that our government is unresponsive to the desires of the majority of the American people.
As Columbia law professor Tim Wu pointed out in the New York Times in March 2019, “The defining political fact of our time is not polarization. It’s the inability of even large bipartisan majorities to get what they want on issues [that concern them]. Call it the oppression of the supermajority. Ignoring what most of the country wants—as much as demagogy and political divisiveness—is what is making the public so angry.”2
This is a key problem in our country right now. It’s not that Americans don’t agree on many issues; it’s that Americans have no way of achieving the policies they agree on.
March 8, 2019, was a chilly day in Washington, DC, and a big vote loomed in the House of Representatives. Speaker Nancy Pelosi addressed a group of lawmakers, staffers, and citizens on the steps of the Capitol; the crowd was bundled up to keep warm, waving American flags and holding posters in support of the forthcoming vote.
In the lead-up to the vote, Republicans made it clear that they would have no part in a bill that would, among other sweeping reforms, extend the vote to formerly incarcerated citizens.
For example, Representative David McKinley, R-West Virginia, trotted out the idea that expanding democracy is wasteful spending and asked on Facebook, “Do you want your tax dollars going to bankroll campaigns? H.R. 1 provides a 6:1 government match for ‘small’ campaign contributions. This would put taxpayers on the hook for attack ads, robocalls, and targeted ads on social media for candidates.”3
Republicans in the House suggested several amendments, including one that, as Fox reported, would have condemned “illegal immigrant voting.”4
Later in the day, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2019, along partisan lines, 234–193. The bill’s summary states simply that it is “to expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, and strengthen the ethics rules for public servants, and for other purposes.”
The headline on Fox’s website summed up the Republican position once the bill passed: “House Dems pass ‘power grab’ voting rights bill; McConnell says proposal has no chance in Senate.”5
It’s telling, but not surprising, that Republicans are painting H.R. 1 as a power grab by Democrats. As covered in part 2, Republicans have opposed expanding the vote for more than a century for various reasons and through various mechanisms (and Democrats did largely before 1965).
As Representative Zoe Lofgren, D-California, said at the time, Democrats and pro-democracy advocates see the bill differently: that it “grabs power away from the elites and the power brokers and gives it to the people.”6 That’s the predictable outcome of any bill that expands voting rights and attempts to cap the corrupting influence of money in politics—and that’s what has the Republicans scared.
Looking at the proposals in H.R. 1, it’s clear why Republicans are nervous: it would roll back more than a century of right-wing voter suppression efforts, and it would extend and improve our democracy, threatening the oligarchs’ current stranglehold on policy making in the United States.
The bill introduces a combination of sweeping changes and minor tweaks, and it’s broken into three distinct but deeply connected sections:
2. Campaign Finance
At its core, democracy is a simple system in which we, the people, send signals to our government, which in turn implements policy, laws, and large-scale projects on behalf of us. In this system, elections are the occasions when we, the people, go to our polling places, where we can send signals to our government by submitting our votes.
In an ideal system, every citizen is an eligible voter, and every eligible voter can go to his or her polling place at every election, and then his or her vote is perfectly counted.
In real elections, there are system failures at every step of the way:
1. Not every citizen is registered to vote.
2. Republican-controlled states have made it difficult to register to vote through mechanisms like mandating citizenship IDs and then closing DMVs in majority black areas (as Republicans did in Alabama in 2015).7
3. Even if a citizen thinks he or she is registered to vote, many Republican-controlled states actively purge inactive voters.
4. Elections are held on weekdays, and many workers may not be able to take time off to vote.
5. Polling places are not always convenient to get to, and staffing issues can cause long waits and lines. If lines are particularly long and the weather is particularly nasty, many voters may choose either to not take time off work or to simply stay home.
6. Because of issues with “miscalibrated” privately owned voting machines or confusing ballots or outright vote stuffing, our votes are not always accurately counted.
7. Because of the corrupting influence of money in politics and our media, and the resulting amount of misinformation that is directed at voters, even if every step of the voting process were safe, secure, and easy to use, voters might still not be all that well informed about their choices when casting their ballot.
It may languish and die in the Republican-controlled Senate, but the For the People Act of 2019 marks a good first step toward addressing many of these issues.
The bill would create automatic voter registration at the national level, which would thwart many of the state-level voter suppression tactics exploited by Republicans over the last half-century of elections.
As the Brennan Center for Justice notes, automatic voter registration does two things. First, it makes registering to vote an opt-out choice rather than an opt-in choice. This might seem like just a semantic change, but significant research shows that individuals are more likely to participate in a program that is opt-out rather than opt-in.
A 2013 Association for Psychological Science blog post describes how this logic explains why the United States has fewer registered organ donors than other countries:
In the United States, 85 percent of Americans say they approve of organ donation, but only 28 percent give their consent to be donors by signing a donor card. The difference means that far more Americans die awaiting transplants. But psychologists Eric J. Johnson, a professor at Columbia University Business School, and Daniel Goldstein, formerly at Yahoo and now a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, found in a 2003 study that in many European countries, individuals are automatically organ donors unless they opt not to be—organ donation is the default choice. In most of these countries, fewer than 1 percent of citizens opt out. In an article published in Science in 2003, Johnson and Goldstein theorized that opting out in those countries was simply too much of a hassle for most people, since it involved “filling out forms, making phone calls, and sending mail.”8
The very same logic may help to explain why so many Americans are not registered to vote. In a 2017 Pew survey, 27 percent of eligible but unregistered voters said that they “intend to register but haven’t done so yet.”9
This is not the same as compulsory voting, as citizens are still able to opt out of voter registration, but it makes being registered to vote the default position for American adults. (Compulsory voting addresses a different failure in the ideal democratic system: the problem of people not showing up to their polling place or casting a ballot at all, even if they are registered.)
The second thing that automatic national voter registration would accomplish is that it would create a system whereby voting agencies keep electronic voter information that can be transferred to election officials, instead of paper registration forms that could be misplaced or lost by local election officials looking to skew the vote.
Sweden has automatic voter registration and a database that tracks every citizen’s name, address, birth, and marital status. At every election, the government sends proof of registration material to every Swedish citizen who is in the national voting database.
While this system may provoke cries of “government overreach!” from libertarian and survivalist types, it would ensure that partisan state officials could not tamper with the voter rolls without also justifying changing the national voter rolls.
With automatic national voter registration in place, Jim Crow voter suppression efforts would have been rendered null, and Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney never would have been murdered while registering black voters around Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Through much of the 20th century, automatic voter registration would have been a cumbersome, file-intensive program on a larger scale than even Social Security. (Social Security was such a large program, literally, that there was no building big enough in Washington, DC, to store the paper, filing cabinets, and equipment that the program’s bookkeeping required.)
Today, all of the necessary information for automatic national voter registration could be easily collected and stored electronically on secure government servers, and there’s little reason not to.
Right now, 15 states and Washington, DC, have approved automatic voter registration with very promising results for democracy. The Brennan Center declared in 2018 that “the results have been exciting. Since Oregon became the first state in the nation to implement AVR in 2016, the Beaver State has seen registration rates quadruple at DMV offices. In the first six months after AVR was implemented in Vermont on New Year’s Day 2017, registration rates jumped 62 percent when compared to the first half of 2016.”10
Grant Ferguson, a blue-eyed, clean-shaven sales manager in Iowa, was taken aback when a sheriff’s deputy arrived with a warrant for his arrest.
Even more shocking was the reason why. According to an AP report, Ferguson “was stunned when he learned the reason: his unsuccessful attempt to vote in the 2016 election. The supporter of President Donald Trump would ultimately face $5,000 in legal costs to resolve the charges, which stemmed from a bureaucratic error that unknowingly kept him on Iowa’s list of ineligible felon voters.” Iowa is unforgiving when it comes to ex-felons casting ballots, the report said, and prosecutors pursue cases relentlessly:
A Clinton [Iowa] man who is disabled from a brain injury was prosecuted after he mistakenly believed poll workers would alert him if there was a problem with his voting eligibility. A low-income Muscatine man who cast a provisional ballot after disputing that he was ineligible still owes $2,300 in court costs. The mayor of tiny Moorhead was forced to resign and prosecuted for illegally voting after a judge revoked his deferred judgment in a drug case.
Prosecutors pursued cases even when ex-offenders such as Ferguson believed they were legal voters but cast provisional ballots so that their eligibility could be determined later.11
In many of these cases, the ex-felons did not intend to break the law, and they may have even been trying to hedge their bets by casting a provisional ballot because they were unsure whether they were eligible to vote (as in Ferguson’s case). Sometimes the state’s felon list isn’t updated, or local precincts haven’t checked the state’s list for updates, causing errors in who is allowed to vote.
Some states, following the lead of Jeb Bush in Florida’s 2000 election, use these mistakes to purge the voter rolls of convicted felons and anyone who shares a similar name with a convicted felon. In the case of Kris Kobach’s Crosscheck crusade against nonexistent voter fraud, secretaries of state have purged individuals from the rolls even when they had a middle initial that was different from a convicted felon’s and regardless of whether the two individuals had different Social Security numbers.
As covered earlier, in many states—such as Texas and Florida—individuals with criminal records are disproportionately black or Hispanic, and the Republican Party has been very successful in making sure that they can’t vote. In Florida, a swing state, fully 21 percent of African American men can’t vote (as of 2018) because of a felony conviction.12
The For the People Act of 2019 goes a step beyond automatic voter registration when an individual turns 18—it would also require states to automatically register ex-felons when their sentence is complete, upon release. Right now, 12 states (five in the South) ban automatic voter restoration once felons have completed their sentence.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has called the bill “a solution in search of a problem”—but in the cases of Grant Ferguson and dozens of others in Iowa, automatic restoration of voting rights would have saved them an arrest, lost wages, time in court, and a hefty fine.
For Americans like Grant Ferguson—who has served his time and is seeking to participate in American democracy—the problem of voter suppression and inconsistent local and federal laws have costly consequences.
Once a citizen has served his or her time for a crime and is deemed rehabilitated to reintegrate into society, it should be considered essential to reintegration that that citizen be able to participate in our democracy and exercise his or her right to vote.
Certainly, if a citizen has committed no crime aside from having a name similar to that of a criminal, it is a major problem if he or she is purged from the voter rolls, as happened in Florida in 2000.
Taking it a step further, Bernie Sanders pointed out during a town hall in May 2019 that Vermont is one of two states in the union (Maine is the other) that lets felons vote while in jail. While the idea of such a thing going national quickly became an object of ridicule, the most important point is lost.
We say that we think of felons as human beings whom we are working to redeem and reintegrate into society. What better way to reintegrate a person into society than giving the person a choice in selecting his or her representatives and sometimes even voting on ballot measures that may become law?
In the lead-up to the 2018 midterms, the Economist ran an article that clearly laid out how the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder gutted the preclearance provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and how states took that to mean that it was open season to purge state voter rolls. The article quotes research from the Brennan Center for Justice that found that “nearly 16m voters were removed from the rolls between 2014 and 2016. That is almost 4m more than were purged between 2006 and 2008. The increased purging far exceeds population growth or the growing number of registered voters.”13
This is a system failure that automatic voter registration would not necessarily fix. Theoretically, a voter could be registered nationally but purged from the rolls for local and state elections. Since local and state elections are where most of the decisions that affect people are made, this represents a potentially serious failure of democracy.
Voter caging is just one form of voter suppression, but as the Brennan Center’s figures show, it is also very effective. Here’s how it works: State officials claim that they are simply seeking out people who may have died or moved out of state, so that they can be removed from the rolls for accuracy’s sake. Under the pretense of rooting out those ineligible folks, election officials send out mass nonforwardable direct mailings to every registered voter. If any mail is returned because a voter moved (even if he or she just moved down the street), election officials use that as a reason to formally challenge the person’s right to vote.
The For the People Act of 2019 outright bans the practice unless the challenger gives an oath that he or she has a “good faith factual basis to believe the person is ineligible to vote or register to vote.”14
Voter caging puts the burden of proof on the citizen to prove that he or she has a right to vote. This provision in H.R. 1, combined with automatic voter registration, flips the script and puts the burden of proof on state officials to prove that a citizen should lose his or her right to vote.
With just these two provisions (ending voter caging and implementing automatic voter registration), millions of Americans would gain the right to vote, and that right to vote would be protected from frivolous attempts to take it away. But it doesn’t guarantee that voters would have the time or means to make it to the polls on Election Day.
If the United States can get every eligible citizen registered to vote for a given election, the next hurdle is to make sure that voters are able to go to a polling place and actually cast a ballot.
Fully 14 percent of registered voters who did not vote in the 2016 election reported that they were too busy or had a conflicted schedule, with another 12 percent reporting that they had an illness or disability, and another 8 percent reporting that they were out of town or away from home, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data in 2017.15
The US Constitution doesn’t specify when elections are to be held. Until 1845, each state was able to set its own date for elections. Before 1845, states held elections in the 34 days before the electors in the Electoral College voted.
In 1792, the presidential election was held from Friday, November 2, until Wednesday, December 5, in a system that resembled our current presidential primary system. While the system gave voters plenty of time to cast their votes for the popular vote, it also created a system whereby states that cast their votes earlier could influence the decisions of voters who cast their ballots later. (This problem also exists in our partisan primary system, and states jockey to hold their primaries and caucuses earlier to give their voters outsized influence.)
In 1845, President John Tyler signed an act by Congress that made the general election uniform throughout the country. From 1845 forward, Election Day was officially the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
While it may seem arbitrary to today’s Americans, Congress calculated that the first Tuesday was when most American voters would be able to make it to the polls. Jane C. Hu explained the logic in a Quartz article, writing that Congress in 1845 assumed a few things to be true about American voters at the time, aside from knowing that voters would be tax-paying white men in good standing with their respective state governments:
1. Voters were mostly farmers who would likely be done with harvest by November but would still need to take their harvest to town markets (normally held on Wednesdays).
2. Most voters wouldn’t be able to travel on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, for religious reasons.
3. Many Christian voters would be celebrating All Saints’ Day on November 1.16
None of these considerations are relevant today; it’s time to make Election Day a national holiday.17,18
Voting by mail offers a tidy solution for voters who are unable—because of either physical or time constraints—to vote in person at a polling place. Voting by mail has also been thoroughly tested at the state and local levels across the United States, and 22 states have provisions for certain elections to be held entirely by mail-in ballots.
The way it works is simple, as the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) explains: “All registered voters receive a ballot in the mail. The voter marks the ballot, puts it in a secrecy envelope or sleeve and then into a separate mailing envelope, signs an affidavit on the exterior of the mailing envelope, and returns the package via mail or by dropping it off.”19
In many ways, vote by mail reflects the United States’ original election system up until 1844, when voters cast ballots over the period of a month.
Oregon, Colorado, and Washington distribute all their ballots by mail, but it is not the exclusive way that ballots are cast—and many people still want the sensation of actually delivering their ballot to a physical location, rather than having a stranger pick it up from their mailbox.
Researchers at the MIT Election Data + Science Lab found that “73 percent of voters in Colorado, 59 percent in Oregon and 65 percent in Washington returned their ballots to some physical location such as a drop box or local election office. Even among those who returned their ballots by mail in these states, 47 percent dropped off their ballot at a U.S. Post Office or neighborhood mailbox rather than having their own postal worker pick it up at home.”20 This is critical, because the goal in our democracy ought to be to provide as many opportunities as possible for people to vote.
Vote by mail is very well tested, with proven results in terms of boosting voter turnout in both rural and urban areas, particularly in off-cycle elections.
A rural Nebraska county of about 2,000 people recently experimented with conducting its entire May 15 primary by mail. Every voter in Garden County, Nebraska, was mailed a ballot, and they had to return it by mail or to a drop box by the end of May 15. Remarkably, Garden County saw a 58.7 percent voter turnout in the 2018 primary—more than double the Nebraska-wide average of 24.3 percent.21
In April 2018, Anchorage, Alaska, held its first vote-by-mail election for a local election, and it received about 80,000 votes out of 218,000 registered voters—up from the record 71,000 votes that had been cast in 2012.22
In addition to increasing voter turnout and making it easier to vote, vote by mail nullifies the need for absentee voting, as every voter is given the opportunity to vote absentee, by mail.
But vote by mail also has its shortcomings. As the NCSL notes, “Mail delivery is not uniform across the nation. Native Americans on reservations may in particular have difficulty with all-mail elections. Many do not have street addresses, and their P.O. boxes may be shared. Literacy can be an issue for some voters, as well. Election materials are often written at a college level.”23
Lawmakers can solve some of this by pushing to have the state governments pay for postage, as Governor Kate Brown is currently promoting in Oregon. In Washington and California, prepaid mail ballots are already the norm.
Vote by mail, if implemented correctly, could go a long way toward boosting voter turnout in federal elections. However, there’s plenty more we can do to ensure that every eligible citizen has the right and ability to vote, such as providing staffed vote centers, now used in Denver and the entire state of California, offering help to voters with disabilities, language translations, and other assistance. The savings of replacing local polling places with vote by mail can be put toward vote centers that provide early voting and well-trained staff to assist voters who need it.
Vote by mail can overcome the physical hurdle of getting voters to polling places, but we can also make polling places more available to voters than just during polling hours on a Tuesday in November.
Extending early voting helps to address the time constraints that voters in the real world face. Real voters have families, children, jobs, and other pressing demands that make it difficult to drop everything on a Tuesday in November to stand in line potentially for hours. Even after standing in line for hours, many legitimate voters have been told they are not properly registered and offered a provisional ballot to cast—which may or may not be counted.
Extending early voting would help workers and caregivers find time to get to the polls—and, importantly, expanding early voting would reduce the length of lines at polling places on Election Day, not only making it easier for voters to choose a day and time that worked for them, but also giving voters the confidence that voting would be a relatively quick process because of shorter lines.
Unlike other initiatives to expand the vote and to make it easier to vote, extending early voting enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support. The Brennan Center for Justice reported in 2016,
One recent poll found 75 percent of likely voters support early voting, with 60 percent expressing “strong” support. A 2013 poll of North Carolina voters found 85 percent of respondents back early voting, including more than 75 percent of Republicans. Americans also oppose efforts to restrict early voting—an October 2014 poll found only 11 percent of voters supported reducing early voting before Election Day.24
The Brennan Center recommends that every state offer early voting beginning “a minimum of two full weeks before Election Day, including weekend and evening hours.”25
Back in 2002, polling showed popular Georgia Democratic Senator Max Cleland with a solid, five-point lead over his Republican challenger, Saxby Chambliss, a week before Election Day. But when the votes were counted using electronic voting machines made and operated by a private, for-profit corporation, Chambliss emerged victorious.
So what happened? Well, it might have had something to do with a software patch that Diebold installed in machines in Democratic-leaning counties months before voters went to the polls.26 But we’ll never actually know what happened. As Robert F. Kennedy Jr. noted in his piece on the 2002 Georgia Senate race, “It is impossible to know whether the machines were rigged to alter the election in Georgia: Diebold’s machines provided no paper trail, making a recount impossible.”27
That’s the whole problem with electronic voting machines: we’ll never really know. Private companies don’t have to reveal their software secrets because they are protected under copyright law. And again, unlike with paper ballots, you can’t see when someone messes with your touchscreen vote. It happens outside of plain sight.
Ultimately, however, the biggest problem with electronic voting machines is that they violate the core principles of our republic.
As Truthout reported, “Ireland and Canada tried out electronic voting machines and eventually abandoned them.”28
There is a movement to allow voting through an online portal or by email, which would perhaps be even less secure. These methods are subject to malicious code that can be automated, such as through denial-of-service attacks on servers or through malware.
Voters also could be fooled by “spoof sites” that looked like official voting portals but weren’t. Just as a common election trick is to mail voters cards telling them to show up in the wrong precinct or on the wrong date, emailing them the wrong link in an official-looking email would be child’s play.
Even if the vote wasn’t altered, voters’ data and metadata could be harvested by middlemen who could use or sell it. As far back as 2013, blatant issues with “e-voting” were already becoming clear in developing countries, and many developed countries and regions were already abandoning it.29
Even the US ambassador to the United Nations from 2017 to 2018, Nikki Haley, called for a return to paper ballots—at least in the Congo. The Washington Post reported in September 2018 that “Haley called on Congo to abandon its plan to use the machines for the first time in favor of paper ballots—what she called a ‘trusted, tested, transparent and easy-to-use voting method.’” And earlier that year, she said, in her official capacity, “These elections must be held by paper ballots so there is no question by the Congolese people about the results. The U.S. has no appetite to support an electronic voting system.”30
Just two months after the Washington Post published that story, 25 states in the United States allowed voting by email or online portals, and around 350,000 voting machines were in use in the 2018 midterm elections.
What’s good for elections in the Congo would be good for elections in the United States: the best solution to the vulnerabilities of old electronic voting machines and e-voting is to do away with them completely and return to 100 percent paper ballots. Short of that, electronic voting machines should be owned by the government and programmed with open-source software.
As noted earlier, the Supreme Court in 2019 threw open the door to political gerrymandering by whichever party can gain control of a state in an election year ending in 0 (the Constitution requires a census and reapportionment every decade). Legislation should be passed explicitly overturning this decision and providing for “good government” nonpartisan commissions to draw legislative districts.
The last two Republican presidents have both lost the popular vote (2000, 2016). But they won the electoral vote and thus became president.
The Washington Post reported shortly after the 2016 presidential election that Wyoming has three electoral votes and a population of 586,107, while California has 55 electoral votes and 39,144,818 residents. If electoral votes are distributed evenly among each state’s residents, individual votes from Wyoming carry 3.6 times more weight than those from California.31
On March 15, 2019, Colorado governor Jared Polis, a Democrat, signed a bill that made Colorado the 12th state (and 13th jurisdiction, including Washington, DC) to join an interstate compact to pledge the state’s elector to the winner of the national popular vote.
As conservative commentator Matt Vespa pointed out on the website Townhall, “Prior to this move by Colorado, 11 states totaling 165 votes agreed to this compact. Now, it’s 12 states with 181 electoral votes. Nothing is triggered unless this push cobbles together enough states that will grant the winner 270 votes.”
The compact is just 89 electoral votes shy of rendering the Electoral College null and void; because it takes only 270 votes to win the Electoral College, if states representing 270 electors sign on to the compact, then the national popular vote becomes decisive because those 270 pledged electors make up a majority.
Many people wrongly believe that pledging the Electoral College to a national popular vote is a partisan solution that would only help Democrats—especially with Paul LePage making declarations about the plan like “White people will not have anything to say. It’s only going to be the minorities who would elect.”32
In reality, it would end the concept of battleground states because every voter’s vote—wherever he or she lives—would count the same as every other voter’s.33 Indeed, in 1969 a bipartisan constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College passed the House of Representatives 339 to 70, far more than the two-thirds necessary in either house of Congress to pass a constitutional amendment.
While voters in swing states might protest that the national popular vote would hurt them by minimizing their voices, that is only because right now they have a disproportionately large impact on our elections and how presidential candidates campaign, even as early as the during the parties’ primaries.
The national popular vote would neutralize the Electoral College without rewriting the US Constitution. That would go a long way toward ensuring that our presidents are elected by the majority of Americans.
In United States elections, even if we abolished the Electoral College (or functionally abolished it), we would still likely have partisan gridlock. This is because the United States operates under a “first past the post, winner takes all” electoral system. This almost always produces a two-party system, where even basic governmental functions like passing a budget become partisan gauntlets.
It’s as close to a law in political science as there is—Duverger’s law, which says simply that systems that use first-past-the-post elections will end up with two parties, either because smaller parties lose support and “die” until only two remain or because smaller parties converge into larger parties until only two remain.34
Even though there are more than 30 nationally registered political parties in the United States, only the Republican and Democratic parties ever have a real showing, with secondary parties rarely garnering more than 5 percent of the popular vote, except in historically exceptional circumstances.
In first-past-the-post voting, a voter casts one vote per position, and whoever gets the most votes for that position wins. It has the advantage of being simple. But it also creates a system in which two parties dominate.
Combined with the partisan primary system, it also often forces voters into choosing the “least bad” candidate who is least offensive to everyone, instead of choosing the candidate whom a voter most strongly supports based on his or her positions on pertinent issues.
A ranked-choice, or instant-runoff, voting system addresses this. Ranked-choice voting also makes it impossible for a candidate to win without winning the support of a majority of voters.
The way it works is simple: instead of casting a single vote for a single candidate, each voter gets to rank the candidates, listing his or her first choice, second choice, etc. In the first round, only the voters’ first choices are counted. If one candidate wins a simple majority in the first round, that’s that. If no one wins outright in the first round, then the candidates who finish last are eliminated. When those candidates are eliminated in the second round, their voters still get a voice, because their second choices are counted. This cycle repeats until there are only two candidates left, at which point the candidate with the most votes (which would then be a majority) wins.
Ranked-choice voting reduces the power of money in politics, because so much of it is used for negative campaigning, which becomes less effective in such a system. It also creates an elected political field that more accurately reflects the electorate, by giving voters a wider array of choices. Ranked-choice voting is already in place in cities and for certain elections in places around the country, and it’s gaining popularity quickly.
While ranked-choice voting would be most transformative in federal and state elections, it could have a tremendous impact on our politics if the Democratic and Republican parties adopted ranked-choice voting for primaries, particularly for the presidential primaries. In fact, Democrats in Alaska and Hawaii will do so in 2020.
Voting is mandatory in Australia and Belgium—so why not here?
Many people would loudly proclaim that compulsory voting is an anti-democratic idea, but it seems unlikely that anyone would argue that Australia and Belgium are dictatorships because they fine people who don’t vote. The $20 fine is high enough to make it worthwhile for voters to participate but low enough that it is unlikely to bankrupt someone or be burdensome to enforce.
Australia implemented compulsory voting in 1924; the voter turnout in Australia has never been lower than 91 percent.35
Emilee Chapman, a political scientist at Stanford University, describes the simple logic behind compulsory voting: “It really offers this society-wide message: There is no such thing as a political class in a democracy. Voting is something that is for everybody, including and especially people at the margins of society.”36
While compulsory voting will probably never pass in America, there are ways to encourage people to vote that are legal and would probably withstand a constitutional challenge, from the persuasive (nationally funded campaigns like those done to promote savings bonds and victory gardens during World War II) to the direct (tax deductions available only to voters). It’s a great companion discussion to the national debate about automatic voter registration.
We have compulsory jury duty, draft registration, and taxes. Voting is part of being a citizen, the price we pay for living in a democracy.
It’s a mass of irony for all the world to see;
it’s the nation’s capital, it’s Washington, DC.
—Gil Scott Heron
The Democratic Party is facing a crisis that it’s experienced only once before in its history: the near-complete loss, for multiple generations, of control of the Senate—and thus the loss of any say in the makeup of the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court. Within the next two decades, half of the population of the United States will live in just eight states and be represented by only 16 (out of 100) senators.37 Right now, about two-thirds of the US population lives in just 15 states, represented by only 30 senators (and thus 30 percent of the Senate).
There’s history here, and Democrats need to learn from it fast.
Generally speaking, as the country was adding new states (mostly in the 19th century), the population of a territory that wanted to become a state had to hit the threshold necessary for a single representative in the House of Representatives, which, in 1864, was 125,000 residents. Nonetheless, in 1864 during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and his Republican Party (which controlled both the House and Senate at the time) brought the Nevada territory into the Union—all 7,000 residents living in Nevada. Had Nevada waited until it had enough residents to qualify for a single House seat, it wouldn’t have been admitted as a state until 1970.
But Nevada added two Republican senators, giving the GOP solid control over the Senate. In 1876, to solidify that majority, Republican president Ulysses S. Grant and his party granted Colorado—with 40,000 residents—statehood.
Republicans doubled down on the process in 1889, when they’d just ousted Democrat Grover Cleveland from the White House, and Republican president Benjamin Harrison not only admitted the Dakota Territory into the union but split it in two to produce four senators and two representatives for the GOP. (North Dakota had 36,000 residents in 1880;38 South Dakota had 98,000.39)
In roughly 40 years the GOP added eight senators, largely cementing their control of the Senate until the Great Depression; from Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861 until 1933, Democrats controlled the Senate for only eight years.
Democrats need to consider doing the same. There are two ways: add new states and split up some of the existing states.
Almost half of our states have fewer than four million people,40 with 14 of them having fewer than two million, and generally the least populous states are the most rural and the most reliably Republican.
California, with about 40 million residents, could—given these numbers—split itself into 10 or more states, adding 18 or more senators (not all but most Democratic). New York, with 20 million, could easily become two (New York City and the rest of the state) or even four if the boroughs of NYC were broken out.
There is virtually no discussion of this among Democrats; it’s time to start a conversation.
Similarly, at the very least, the District of Columbia should become a state now.
“Taxation without representation” is proudly displayed on license plates of vehicles registered in Washington, DC. Ironic, considering that the city is the capital of a nation that was birthed in the colonial cries of “No taxation without representation!”
Though residents in Washington, DC, pay federal taxes and the District has more citizens than either Wyoming or Vermont,41 DC is not a state, has no votes in Congress, and has had only three Electoral College votes since the 1961 passage of the 23rd Amendment.
Puerto Rico is in a similar situation, although residents of the territory do not generally pay federal taxes. In a 2017 referendum, 97 percent of the island’s residents voted in favor of statehood.42
The people of both Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, want the places where they live to become states, and Republicans are terrified at the prospect because both places are overwhelmingly Democratic, which would add four Democratic senators, producing a Senate that more accurately reflected the overall American electorate.
Until Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, are admitted as states into the United States, their respective nonstate statuses mean that their residents are facing a systemic form of voter suppression.
Some readers may despair, seeing the figures in this book and learning how billionaires and the Republicans have disenfranchised millions. Although the solutions here have focused on fundamental ways that we can restore the vote and strengthen our democracy, most change happens locally.
Individuals can help every step of the way—from asking neighbors whether they are registered to driving neighbors to the polls and acting as a poll watcher.
The situation will not change without Americans participating. No individual politician will change the trend toward oligarchy. The seeds for change in American politics are scattered in towns, boroughs, and counties across the country.
The power of money in politics diminishes as Americans create more local people-powered coalitions to exert positive pressure for popular local issues. As one of the first campaign ads for Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, declared, “They’ve got money, we’ve got people.”
The truly exceptional part of American exceptionalism is that our country was birthed not in genetics or national identity but out of the egalitarian ideals of the Enlightenment. Imperfectly implemented and acted out as those principles have been, particularly in our first hundred years, we’ve moved over the centuries toward a better and better expression of them.
The past 40 years or so have seen backward movement in the ability of our government to respond to the desires of most Americans, while that same majority is outspoken about wanting more transparent, more accountable, and more representative governance.
Our voting system is a product of some of the best ideas of the 18th century. In the 21st century, we have in our hands the ability to bring it more fully in line with the Lockean and Jeffersonian ideals and create “a more perfect union.”