GUEST OPINION: System of a Down

By on April 19, 2016

Is America truly a democracy when voting continues to be rife with barriers?

JACKSON HOLE, WY – There are a lot of angry Bernie Sanders supporters in Wyoming this week. Having won the state 56 to 44 percent, they are understandably upset that the losing candidate, Hillary Clinton, appears to be walking away with 60 percent of the delegates. How is that democracy, they wonder?

America is famous for its belief that it sets the gold standard for democracy. Americans believe that we are not only the inventors of democracy, but that we have always been the best at practicing it. We believe we’re so good at democracy that we are justified in invading other countries and imposing our version of it on them. That is how good we are at democracy.

But if there is one thing America has been historically good at, it’s making sure people can’t vote.

In early America, you had to be a white male property owner to be eligible to vote. Women, blacks, Jews, Catholics, and non-property owners were barred from voting. America was run for and by wealthy white males. Some things, it seems, never change.

It wasn’t until after the Civil War that black men were given the right to vote. Another 100 years would pass before black Americans were allowed to vote in any meaningful way. More on that later.

In 1913, voters were finally allowed to vote for senators. Before that, the Senate was chosen by state legislators in exactly the kind of backroom deals that voters are angry about today. Some things never change.

In 1920, women were granted the right to vote. Not all women, of course. Black women (and men) still had no meaningful voice in government. Albert Einstein had published his theory of general relativity four years prior. In 1924, Native Americans were finally granted universal suffrage.

In 1966, only three years before we would put a man on the moon, Americans finally eliminated the poll tax, which was specifically designed to prevent poor people (especially black Americans) from voting. Today we find more subtle ways of doing that. Some things never change.

Today, unlike in most of the civilized world, felons are often barred from voting. As Michelle Alexander documents in “The New Jim Crow”, our criminal justice system was explicitly designed (especially through the War On Poor and/or Minority Americans Who Use Drugs) to disenfranchise large numbers of Americans, especially black Americans. There is absolutely no logical connection between someone’s violation of a law and their right to voice an opinion on that law, yet the disenfranchisement remains. Some things never change.

We have an intentionally confusing electoral system. The wealthy white men who have always run this country have clung on as long as possible to every barrier between citizens and self-government they’ve ever erected. The electoral college, the two party system, voter ID, delegates, super-delegates, winner take all elections, gerrymandering, unlimited corporate campaign contributions, Tuesday elections, reduced polling places, and more, all serve the purpose of preventing or discouraging voting and narrow the range of candidates from which voters can choose.

That is a summation of the sorry history of voting rights and democracy in the United States. What does this look like in practice?

A 2014 Princeton study shows that there is essentially zero correlation between voter preferences and public policy. They conclude that the United States does not function as a democracy. It likely never has.

Presidential elections have by far the highest turnout rates. Yet in 2012, only 54.9 percent of voting age Americans actually voted. This means that only 28 percent of Americans actually cast votes for the winner. The turnouts for non-presidential elections are far more dismal.

I don’t have any easy solutions to offer. Maybe recognizing the fact that we aren’t a democratic country is a good first step. And I don’t mean that it’s useless to participate in elections. Local elections often offer real choices, for example, or at least the prospect of real influence. But we should remember that telling people they can’t complain if they don’t vote just ignores the very real barriers to democratic participation that are maintained to this day.

And let’s not pretend that things are the way they are today because democracy has spoken. It has not. This election cycle is in many ways about whether we can effect the change we want and need through the ballot box, or whether voters will resort to other methods.

Voting rights are a perfect example of that. No group has ever been granted the right to vote without a fight. But by definition those battles weren’t waged at the ballot box, as those who fought them were denied that weapon. The Civil Rights movement in America is a perfect example.

Voting is important. If it weren’t, the establishment wouldn’t spend so much time and money on preventing us from doing it. But it’s not enough. We’ll need to educate ourselves, organize ourselves, and demand change from a position of power. It’s always been this way. Some things do actually change, but that isn’t one of them.

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