After 11 years in the wilderness, Democrats again control Congress and the presidency. The Trump administration, courtesy of an Electoral College victory in 2016 that negated Hillary Clinton’s nearly three million popular vote advantage, gave us a harrowing four-year demonstration of how easy it is to frustrate the will of the people. Last year’s upsurge in civic participation notwithstanding, the American electorate has been systematically pruned by decades of voter suppression. Our system, by design minoritarian and never fully democratic, has deteriorated, losing many of its quasi-democratic features.
For example, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) rendered the Voting Rights Act of 1965 toothless by ruling unconstitutional the formula which had forced nine mostly Southern states with histories of literacy tests and anti-Black voter suppression to submit to special federal election oversight. State Republicans are currently working on 106 bills designed to restrict voting rights across the country. Then there’s the issue of redistricting. In a 5-4 2019 Supreme Court ruling, federal courts were stripped of their ability to stop flagrantly partisan gerrymandering, the process by which voting district boundaries are manipulated to favor the political party in power. Republicans’ slew of 2020 victories in state legislatures which will draw new congressional districts effectively guarantees that more GOP-led partisan gerrymandering is on the way.
By taking advantage of physical concentrations of distinct voting groups to design districts that disempower political opponents, politicians who engage in gerrymandering warp the composition of state legislatures and Congress, causing their makeup to stray far from voters’ wishes. A 2019 report by the Center for American Progress found that, from 2012 to 2016, an average of 59 U.S. House seats (over 1 in 8) were wrongly assigned because of gerrymandering. And this was merely the result of redistricting which happened in 2010. Absent congressional action, Republicans will now have the opportunity to make this problem even worse.
In the face of this crisis, the newly empowered Democratic majority should prioritize overhauling our political system and stop further Republican perversions of the democratic process. They’re off to a good start. The For the People Act, a House bill first introduced in 2019 by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) with 236 cosponsors, has now been reintroduced by Rep. Sarbanes, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) signing on as cosponsors. The bill would provide for same-day voter registration, early voting, automatic voter registration, an end to voting roll purges, campaign finance reform measures, and independent commissions for redistricting. These are critical reforms, but don’t go far enough. Another measure that Democrats should add to the legislation is ranked-choice voting with proportional representation, as outlined in voting reform group FairVote’s Fair Representation Act. Ranked-choice voting would guarantee that, in a crowded field of candidates, whoever ends up winning does so because they have managed to appeal to a broad swath of the electorate. Creating large districts that elect multiple representatives would mitigate attempts at gerrymandering and ensure that large minorities aren’t silenced, as often happens in the current winner-take-all system. In January 2020, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) endorsed ranked-choice voting, and in September 2020, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) advocated ranked-choice voting in a Boston Globe op-ed.
To understand why the For the People Act and complementary democracy-strengthening measures like ranked-choice voting are so urgent, we should consider how far the American political system has diverged from genuine democracy. Literacy tests and poll taxes are relics, although poll taxes were legal until 1964 and literacy tests were technically constitutional until 1970. But many equally undemocratic practices are alive and well. Nearly 16 million voters were stripped from state voter rolls between 2014 and 2016, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice. In June 2018, the Supreme Court approved Ohio’s method of purging inactive voters, which assumes that inactivity in three elections is justification for removing a registered voter. Since infrequent voters are often younger or more socioeconomically disadvantaged, voter-roll purges result in systematic discrimination. Voter identification requirements, increasingly common as Republicans restrict voting, are effectively a poll tax: obtaining a photo ID requires time, money, an ability to navigate confusing layers of bureaucracy, and a willingness to interact with agencies often perceived as hostile towards people of color or immigrants. Many poor people, immigrants, and people of color are unwilling or unable to obtain photo IDs as a result, dramatically skewing the composition of the electorate.
Tough ID laws also tend to disenfranchise trans people and Native Americans because of challenges these groups often face in proving gender identity and possession of an individual postal address. Inhabitants of Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Washington, D.C.—around 4.4 million people in total, many of whom are people of color and poorer than the average U.S. citizen—have no voting representation in Congress and, D.C. residents excepted, cannot vote in general presidential elections. In many states, felons and ex-felons are denied the franchise—about 6 million people are barred from voting because of convictions.
Structurally, our political system hinders democracy. Gerrymandering creates “safe” federal congressional districts and lopsided state legislatures. California (population: 39.5 million) has the same Senate representation as Wyoming (population: 580,000). The Senate is heavily skewed towards rural, Republican areas—a September 2020 analysis by Nate Silver found that “the Senate is effectively 6 to 7 percentage points redder than the country as a whole.” The Electoral College means presidential elections aren’t truly popular, as we’ve seen twice in the first five elections this century. The Electoral College also skews Republican: in the 2020 election, Biden had to win the national popular vote by 4-5% to have a greater than 70% chance of winning the Electoral College. The Supreme Court, a body of nine unelected, unaccountable justices with lifetime terms, has the same amount of power as the government’s more democratically accountable branches. And given the corporate assault on campaign finance regulations and the fundraising rigmarole elections have become, even the supposedly democratic U.S. House is far from representative: although there are no official property requirements to be a congressperson, the median net worth of a House member in 2015 was around $900,000, and in 2016, the average district in both the House and the Senate was almost 6% more Republican than the nation as a whole.
When elites sense they’re endangered, they game political systems to preserve their power and prevent democratic reforms. The American system, always vulnerable to such hijacking because of built-in oligarchic tendencies, has confirmed this impulse. The Trump-incited putsch on January 6 is the most recent example, but for years, even as they’ve undermined democracy from within, far-right Republicans have made no secret of their distaste for democracy. In 2009, Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel wrote, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible” and implied that he’d choose capitalism over democracy if he had to pick. That same year, Stephen Moore, who later became Trump’s economic advisor, declared, “Capitalism is a lot more important than democracy. I’m not even a big believer in democracy.” Trump himself got in on the anti-democratic rhetoric. Speaking of Democratic proposals in the March 2020 Covid relief bill to encourage mail-in voting, same-day registration and early voting, Trump bloviated, “The things they had in there were crazy. They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” On October 8, 2020, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) tweeted, “We’re not a democracy,” proclaiming that, “Democracy isn’t the objective” and contrasting “rank democracy” with “liberty, peace, and prospefity” [sic]. Such antidemocratic attitudes, now openly voiced by mainstream Republicans, are a clear warning that they’re increasingly willing to jettison democracy and embrace full-on authoritarianism. This is why democratic reforms are so urgent—they will hold politicians accountable to the full electorate, including the poor, historically disenfranchised minority groups, and young people, making it less likely that would-be authoritarians will come to power.
Given how degraded our political system has become, making “one person, one vote” a reality requires enormous changes. Formal democracy is the prerequisite for substantive democracy. The lofty policy goals progressives hope to enact depend on sympathetic state governments and a federal government ready to realize them. Even if we manage to neutralize the streams of dark money arrayed against us, as long as we accept gerrymandering, voter suppression, and rules designed to dilute the popular will as unchangeable aspects of the political landscape, we will always be like Sisyphus, condemned to fight uphill battles on unfavorable terrain. The Democratic Party must, at long last, reckon with this truth. Now is the time to end partisan gerrymandering, overturn Citizens United, embrace proportional representation and pass comprehensive electoral reform. The survival of our democracy demands nothing less.