US electoral process is deeply broken



With under a week until one of the most important midterm elections in the history of the United States, things are looking dystopian. It's difficult to keep the news cycle straight: 5200 troops sent to the border to bar a caravan of weary migrants from entry to the country's asylum system; a massacre of Jews in the deadliest attack on them in US history; the pipe bombs sent to democratic figures seems like ancient history — who even remembers Brett Kavanaugh?

A person wears a Donald Trump themed costume in the annual Village Halloween parade on Sixth Avenue, New York (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)Given their proximity to the election, it's tempting to for punditry and laity alike to wonder what effect they will have on ballots. They will — but perhaps not in the way we might expect.

None of these tragedies will inspire voters or lawmakers to think creatively about civic solutions to the myriad problems facing the United States — immigration reform, anti-semitism, gun violence, sexual assault — but they will have an immense impact on how many head to the polls.

It is tried and tired, but most political scientists and pundits when pressed will tell you: it all comes down to turnout. What base is fired up enough about what issue. And so we're left with a politics that's focused more on convincing people to show up the polls — using either fear or inspiration — rather than campaigns focused on big ideas and legislative ingenuity.  

To posit that the results of an election come down to who shows up at the polls is to admit that America's civic life is broken. Moreover, analysis from the perspective of turnout overemphasises the will and passions of voters and ignores the structural flaws embedded in the country's electoral process.

Even if someone might be fired up enough to want to vote, the barriers put on voting are onerous enough to suppress the average engaged citizen. Anyone who has scrambled to buy a gift or card at the last minute ought to understand how arbitrary registration deadlines disenfranchise voters. Elections are held in the middle of the week — with schools and business all still open. Depending on what state you live in, you may be entitled to paid time off to vote, but that too will depend on your class and profession.

Beyond whether or not a particular voter will have the discretionary time required to vote, many are faced with the question of whether or not they'll be able to cast a vote if they do show up. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, polling places have closed, voters have been purged from rolls, and districts have been gerrymandered all at an alarming rate — many of these efforts disproportionately affect minority communities.


"It is true that elections do have consequences — but it's easy to see why someone might not be convinced that their vote is all that important in the end."


The obvious structural restrictions to voting will not stop many from blaming a lack of individual will for low voter turnouts. It's easier to bash millenials for being lazy than to ask why voting day favours the retired class. Blanket statements, social media posts and campaigns about voting in general (party or issue neutral) are easier than having constructive political conversations. 'You should vote for X because Y' is infinitely more motivating than 'I don't care who or what you vote for! But you should vote, because!'

Americans love to fetishise their democracy — we think of it as our great contribution to the world. The truth is, the United States' relationship with democracy has always been a question of how much democracy (James Miller recounts the founders' skepticism of direct democracy in a new book). The men who formed a new nation left out women, slaves, and men without property from the voting class. Who would come to make up that group is still up for debate.

American elections are not all that frequent, really. And, an average vote only has so much direct impact — and it is likely to get trumped by another branch of government somewhere down the civic pipeline. As Ajay Singh Chaudhary recently wrote, 'while most democratic states have at best one or two so-called "veto players" — checks on the expression of popular sovereignty through elected representation — the United States has four.'

It is true that elections do have consequences — but it's easy to see why someone might not be convinced that their vote is all that important in the end.

But to the extent that the United States is a democracy, it is in a crisis that predates Donald J. Trump's presidency — and it remains to be seen whether we can vote ourselves out of it.



Zac_DavisZac Davis is writer and an associate editor for digital strategy at America magazine and a host of Jesuitical, a podcast for young Catholics. He was named the 2017 Multimedia Journalist of the Year by the Catholic Press Association. In addition to America, his writing on religion and culture has appeared in the Washington Post, Catholic News Service and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @zacdayvis.

Topic tags: Zac Davis, Brett Kavanaugh, US midterms, Donald Trump



submit a comment

Existing comments

I much prefer to be an Australian than an American. But we need to be ever vigilant as our democracy is also threatened by insidious forces at work. Large donations from business interests or unions, the activities of paid lobbyists, the revolving door between former politicians and business are just some of the factors undermining our democracy. Question time in Parliament is largely a farce, with ministers not answering questions and instead throwing mud at their political opponents. The cruel treatment of people who come seeking asylum in Australia, which is their right, is a potent example of how inhumane our major party politicians can be, as is their reductions in overseas aid. Australia has reduced its overseas aid to a pathetic 22 cents in $100 of GDP whereas Britain, with a similar sized economy, gives more than 3 times that. Our political system isn't completely broken, but there are cracks in the system. With global warming and climate change threatening life on this planet, Australia is still one of the greatest per capita carbon emitters. America doesn't have a monopoly on fake news, e.g. we're told coal is good for humanity, when it's cooking the planet!
Grant Allen | 05 November 2018

The United States is, and has always been, a republic, not a democracy. One only has to look at the way in which Representatives, Senators, and the President are elected. Reps for two year terms from single-member gerrymandered districts; Senators for six-year terms, two from each state irrespective of size, but with staggered terms so that no more than one senator in each state is up for election at any one time; and a President elected for 4 years by an electoral college which gives the smaller states an influence which is disproportionately large compared to their populations. And the whole electoral process run by party politicians in the interests of their party ! The President, Senate, and Reps are modelled on the King, Lords, and Commons of eighteenth-century England and reflect the representation (and power) of 'interests', not the representation and will of the people.
Ginger Meggs | 06 November 2018


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up