Goldstein: Not Quite Free

The United States is not as democratic as we are led to believe.

by Matthew Goldstein | 4/20/17 12:35am

Universal suffrage is arguably the most fundamental privilege accorded to American citizens. However, the grasp the United States has on the helm of global electoral freedom may be slipping. In 2015, the United States ranked 20th in the world in an Economist report on democracy that factored in “electoral process and pluralism,” but persistent unjust features of the American voting landscape caused Freedom House to rank the U.S. behind at least 61 other countries in electoral process in 2016. Gerrymandering, voter identification laws and the role of money in elections round out the pantheon of the most pressing threats to Americans’ abilities to shape the course of their nation. Despite the popular conception of America’s place at the forefront of international democracy, these patently anti-democratic laws and processes infringe upon freedoms that, per the rhetoric of U.S. exceptionalism, Americans ought to have.

Gerrymandering, the process by which legislatures or others manipulate the boundaries of states’ Congressional districts, has been part of the public consciousness since at least 1812. It is also, according to Brian Klaas, a Comparative Politics Fellow at the London School of Economics, “why American democracy is broken.” For readers with only a cursory familiarity with gerrymandering, imagine a Congressional district that’s 60 percent Republican and 40 percent Democrat. Through gerrymandering, the Democratic state legislature can nearly arbitrarily redraw the lines of that district so they encompass all of the district’s Democrats but only half of the Republicans. Voilà — you now have a district that votes blue. Districts can also be redrawn to ensure that a certain population has influence within one district only and has little representation in others.

Gerrymandering explains — and is named for — the odd, contorted shapes of many Congressional districts. Its opponents, who span the entire political spectrum, believe that gerrymandering lets politicians pick their constituents when it should really be the other way around. And they have a point: in 2016, despite Congress’ 15 percent approval rating, only eight out of 435 incumbent representatives were defeated. The average margin of victory? 37.1 points — a suspiciously high number for a population so disillusioned with its leaders. Yet this is to be expected when voting blocs have been shoved together into funhouse-mirror districts. Ultimately, gerrymandering allows a party in the numerical minority to seize an electoral majority. It is a systematic denial of proportional representation.

Voter identification laws, thought they affect fewer Americans, serve as another bar to outright electoral freedom. Unlike gerrymandering, this push to force voters to show up to the polls with satisfactory identification is strictly partisan. Republicans generally support voter ID measures, arguing that Democrats might reap electoral advantages from widespread voter fraud. Democrats generally respond that Republicans are just trying to suppress turnout, as it is generally “students, the poor, minorities and the elderly who are most likely to vote Democratic” — and most likely not to have ID, due to cost and other logistical factors. In fact, a federal judge in Texas has ruled that the state’s voter ID law — a law that resembles many others across the country — intentionally discriminates against minorities. And while actual voter fraud might also be anathema to Democrats whose voters are disenfranchised by these laws, conservative worries in the 11 states with so-called “strict” voter ID laws just don’t conform to reality. One study, published in The Washington Post, found only 31 credible instances of voter fraud from 2000-2014, a span of time in which over one billion ballots were cast; that’s a fraud rate of less than 0.0000031 percent. The numbers being what they are, it is clear that discriminatory voter ID statutes are restrictive of Americans’ electoral freedoms — and offer no compelling reason why they should be.

While the foregoing discussions have concerned overt ways in which voting freedoms are curtailed, money — especially corporate money — pumped into electoral politics does the same, albeit more subtly. No, a company’s contribution to a PAC supporting its preferred candidate does not prevent anybody from driving to the polls. It does, however, unduly influence a person’s voting decisions in the name of an entity whose interests may be squarely opposed to that person’s. Citizens United v. FEC, the landmark Supreme Court decision, granted wide license for money to be considered speech and allowed copious amounts of it to be acceptable in the course of elections. The influx of political contributions post-Citizens United subjugates politicians with hopes for re-election to the wealthiest groups contributing to their re-election campaigns. Analyzing 2012 electoral results, a study published in The Atlantic demonstrated that “the size of [a] winning candidate’s victory corresponds to how much more that person spent” than her opponent. And politicians’ positions, which directly affect their constituents, must to some degree be determined by the interests that prop up those winning campaigns. So while big money in politics does not prevent people from voting, it enables ad blitzes and other techniques that unduly influence people to vote for politicians who, in the end, will better represent the interests of their funders than their voters. Freedom to vote means the freedom to vote for the candidate you believe will be best for you. Citizens United obscures the bases for such belief.

There are other putative violations of the Voting Rights Act at the state and federal level that warrant discussion, but space constraints dictate otherwise. Regardless, it is quite clear that a large part of American freedom exists in electoral freedom, which, as shown above, is under assault on multiple fronts. There are definite solutions to these issues — algorithmic apportionment of Congressional districts, rollbacks in voter ID laws and restrictions on monetary political contributions— but they are easier said than done. In the meantime, remaining cognizant of the ways in which our electoral freedoms are incomplete is better than nothing.

This is the third article in “Liberty Abridged,” a series of columns by the author about American conceptions of freedoms and the laws that are purported to advance those ideals.