Now that the ballots have been cast and we wait to see whose will be counted and whose will be ignored, can we please take a moment to acknowledge what a huge mess this whole thing has been?
I don’t mean the big things — the absurd twists in the ugly, never-ending, pandemic-blurred, possibly world-ending presidential election of 2020. No, I’m referring to the smallest, most particular act of this saga: the way we voted. The process of registering your democratic preference, the citizen’s core duty in a democracy. Can we take a moment to acknowledge how terribly inefficient, inaccessible, unfair and just plain backward this process remains in the United States?
When all the tallying is done, up to an estimated 160 million Americans will have voted this year — a turnout of about 67 percent of eligible voters. That would be a modern record, and given that it occurred as the coronavirus raged, the casting and counting of all those votes should be regarded as an achievement for the United States’ election system.
But that’s not a very high bar, and the biggest problem about how America conducts its elections is that we have been too tolerant, for too long, of a bar set way too low.
High turnout notwithstanding, the glaring lesson of this year’s election is that we cannot go on this way. From the endless lines to the pre-election legal wrangling to the president’s constant effort to undermine the process, every ballot cast this year was a leap of faith: Would it get there in time? Would it get there at all? Would they try to toss it out because you voted from a car? Would they throw it out because you signed your name carelessly? Would judges be called upon to alter the mail-in deadline after the election had already begun? Would you ever be able to find the one dropbox in your sprawling county? And, after all that, would anyone believe the count, anyway?
All of this uncertainty is unworthy of the world’s “oldest democracy.” American elections are broken, and because the legitimacy of the entire political system rests upon our votes, their brokenness mars every other part of our democracy.
Fixing how we vote isn’t a mystery. Experts have recommended several specific measures that could greatly expand the franchise, including federal measures to make registration easier, expand early voting and ensure we have adequate resources at polling locations to prevent long lines.
The difficulty is, instead, political. For decades, limiting who gets to vote has been a key strategy of the Republican Party — though usually people on the right have not been quite so proud of this fact. This year, as has happened often with Donald Trump, subtext became text. In the weeks before Election Day, Trump all but boasted about the role that voter intimidation and suppression would play in his campaign.
“We’re watching you, Philadelphia,” Trump warned in Pennsylvania last week, suggesting something untoward going on with the vote in a city highly unfavorable to his candidacy. “We’re watching at the highest level.”
If Democrats win the presidency and the Senate, undoing the Republican bet on disenfranchisement ought to be among their highest priorities. One reason voting remains so onerous is that we rarely think about it except close to Election Day. The further out we get from the vote, the less urgency there is to fix things. But nothing else in a democracy works if voting doesn’t work. So, please, let’s fix voting first.
None of the problems we saw this year were new; inaccessibility, confusion, bureaucratic hoop-jumping and outright intimidation have long been hallmarks of American elections. Though politicians speak dreamily of the importance of voting, the United States badly lags other democracies on many measures of electoral success; in many countries, a turnout rate of about two-thirds wouldn’t rank as particularly extraordinary.
Voting in this country is also highly unequal. Compared with turnout among whites, turnout among people of color is often lower. It’s hard to argue this isn’t by design, a result of decades of deliberate disenfranchisement and the perpetuation, still, of voter suppression efforts aimed at people of color.
But the best way to appreciate the shortcomings in how we vote isn’t by looking at other countries. Instead, compare the act of voting to other modern services. Set against so many less important transactions in American life — ordering a complicated coffee from a national chain, or finding the best sushi place in a town you’ve never visited before — the simple act of casting a ballot is laughably antiquated.
Across much of the country, registering to vote is a labyrinth. In most states, if you haven’t remembered to register by Election Day, you’re too late. Not that you’d necessarily know about it. In between elections, it’s become common for states to “purge” voter rolls of people deemed ineligible, a process that many voters only learn about when they show up at the polls and are denied the chance to vote.
The system is also fragmented and underfunded, and it suffers from misaligned incentives. In many countries, elections are administered by nonpartisan agencies that set rules for the entire nation. In the United States, elections are often run by elected officials — Republican or Democratic secretaries of state, for instance — and rules about who gets to vote and how they do so differ from state to state.
Because states and the federal government do not sufficiently fund the voting system, it is often unable to meet anything more than ordinary demand. In the last few weeks, Americans in many cities have waited hours for the chance to vote, which is both inspiring and a really terrible comment on the state of our democracy.
As Amanda Mull noted recently in The Atlantic, in 2020 the act of voting was elevated to that most sacrosanct place in American society — it became feel-good marketing for brands. This year it felt as if just about every brand in America turned giddy about the democratic process. Retailers and fashion designers and restaurant chains couldn’t stop reminding us to “Vote!”
But the embrace of voting as a way to project corporate virtue only highlights how little the government has done to promote this supposedly precious democratic act. “As long as America’s leaders decline to make the system-wide changes that would help more people vote, corporations with something to sell will seep into the void,” Mull wrote.
She’s right, and it’s terrible. Voting shouldn’t be this difficult or this uncertain. We know what needs to be done to improve the process. And we shouldn’t wait until another election to get it done.
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