Material World: Exercise in democracy? Not exactly
Last month saw the election of the latest American president which was supposed to be an exercise in democracy. Yet there was the disenfranchisement of millions by the suppression of the vote of those eligible to vote, and this, despite the greatest number of votes cast to both candidates in decades.
It was not, as the Trump supporters tried to allege, a problem of voter fraud and deliberate miscounting of the ballots which led to the legal challenges and court battles. It is, as one political commentator, Ezra Klein, explained, ‘…the biggest problems with American democracy is that it’s not democratic’ (Guardian, 1 November).
The problem is the way the American Constitution was constructed and then applied. The manner of the election of the president and other federal officers is not determined by federal law or national rules but by the power of individual states themselves. It has always been the aim of the right-leaning politicians to manipulate the vote by promoting ‘states-rights’ on who, where, when and how citizens can vote. The purpose is to acquire a partisan advantage by limiting the franchise. In all the Republican Party’s complaints about the conduct of the electoral process absolutely none involved making it easier to vote. On the contrary, their campaigns have been to raise more barriers to the participation of eligible voters.
The Supreme Court in 2013 struck down a key provision of the 1965 Civil Rights Act that required states to get ‘pre-clearance’ from the federal government for legislation affecting elections and voting processes. It made it easier for states to gerrymander voting districts, reduce or re-locate the number of polling places, and raise obstacles to the ability to vote. Local legislators could re-draw the voting districts to concentrate or dilute particular voting blocs.
Many media outlets have already reported upon the inconsistencies of the Electoral College which negates the popular vote. American citizens don’t vote for the president but are voting for 538 electors who meet in their respective states and it is they who vote for President. It was a procedure designed by the ‘Founding Fathers’ to stop the possibility of ‘peoples’ power’.
Another example is how the conservatism of particular rural states counter the influence of the more urban regions. 70 percent of America is represented by only 30 senators, while the other 30 percent of the country is represented by 70 senators. California, for example, has a a population of 40 million and is represented by two senators – as are the 570,000 people who live in the state of Wyoming.
Highlighted as well has been those citizens struck off the voting rolls for possessing criminal records, facilitated by the Democratic Party in its passing of legislation that criminalised a significant part of the African-American population. An estimated 5 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, with the disenfranchisement rate highest in Southern states, arising from ballot restrictions enacted during the Jim Crow era in order to prevent black men from voting and holding office. Despite a referendum giving ex-felons the right to vote, Florida continues to block them from voting unless they’ve repaid all fines and fees they owe.
Then there are the voter identification laws widely regarded to be discriminatory. No big deal if you have a driver’s licence, some form of state ID, or a passport — but a very big deal if you don’t. In July, Kentucky became the 19th state that requires voters to present a photo ID at the poll. The purpose is ostensibly to stop fraud at the ballot but merely adds to the costs of running an election
Lastly there are four million Americans living in US territories who can’t vote for any president. Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, US Virgin Islands and other US territories may send representatives to the US Congress who can introduce bills and push for the territory’s agenda at the congressional committee level, but they have no actual power to vote.
US Virgin Islands Delegate to the House of Representatives, Stacey Plaskett, pointed out, ‘This is a long-standing absurdity in our current legal system… Do you know what it’s like to see a bill related to your people, your constituents, and not be able to vote on it? This lack of equal representation and equal voting power has a direct correlation to persistent poverty across all of the US territories. Americans living in the territories are accustomed to being last in line.’
But it is not just citizens of US territories that are excluded from the democratic process but working-people all across America, from the Native American First Peoples to the old and infirm unable to access postal ballots without a complicated application procedure.
America prided itself that the right to vote was enshrined as the foundation of its democracy. But all the evidence suggests that it is not true. Working people are constantly engaged in a battle to protect and exercise their votes.