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Time to rethink tradition
Posted at: Jul/26/2021 : Posted by: mel
Related Category: Politics & Gov, Watching America,
It has been 8 months since the 2020 elections and the entire process of elections is still in the news. There is talk that the election was stolen, and others who worry about the opportunity for fraud. On the other side of the table is a valid concern that elections be accessible and not disenfranchise any distinct group of voters. These are all important questions since our democracy is dependent on the credibility of our elections and their related process.
It is important to begin with getting some terminology correct. We refer to our system of government as a democracy, but in truth it is a hybrid of a “republic” and a democracy. We call this democratic republic a “representative democracy” as suggested by John Adams in 1784.
In a democracy, everyone participates in every decision, majority rules, and there is generally little protections for individual rights or property rights. Additionally, democracies have historically proven to not be practical for large populations and seem to end in turbulence with some group feeling left out.
In a republic, the population is governed by representatives, there are generally mutually accepted laws and good protections for individual and property rights. Historically, republics have worked well for diverse populations as they avoid the extremes of mob rule vs autocratic tyranny.
Our elections that take place every couple of years represent an opportunity to function as a pure democracy for a short while as we choose our representatives for our predominately republic style of governance. The absolute best way to shine a light on the flaws in a system is to stress test it or submit it to a crisis. There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 qualifies as a crisis and put a serious strain on our election processes that is still being debated 8 months later.
In Texas, the Democrats of the state legislature fled the state as a procedural move to block a Republican sponsored voting law change. The proposed law includes requiring one of three forms of ID be referenced for voting either by mail or in person. Additionally, that voting can only be done at your local precinct and there is some limitation on hours available for voting. The sponsors of the bill call it an “election integrity bill designed to safeguard elections.” The fleeing Democratic are arguing that requiring one of three government-issued ID numbers – a driver’s license, state ID or last four of the Social Security number – inside a privacy flap on their mail-in ballot would discriminate against minority voters. Currently, only a signature match is required, as determined by a county signature verification committee that always has a two-to-one partisan balance and thus is subject to the whims of political subjectivity.
It is still confusing how requiring any one of these three forms of ID is discriminatory to a legitimate citizen who by any state or federal constitution is an eligible voter.
The Texas Democrats see themselves as heroes fighting for voting rights, but maybe they picked the wrong cause. Many Democratic legislative bodies across the country want to remake election laws eliminating some state based voter ID requirements and expanding access to mail-in voting. The Republican counter argument is that this would signifiently reduce safeguards against fraudulent ballots. Similar laws are working their way through the legislative process in Georgia and Florida. California is considered the template for “no ID vote by mail process.” There, the entire election system runs on an honor system, with no official ID required to register or vote, and with 87% of the ballots cast by mail in 2020. Obviously, the crisis impact of COVID-19 weighed heavily on the high percentage of California mail-in ballots. At the federal level, the plan to California-ize the nation’s elections is known as H.R.1 and S.1. H.R.1, the deceptively named, For the People Act, passed the U.S. House on March 3. It stalled in the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans hold a 50-50 balance.
The problem with imposing California election standards (meaning no standards by many) on the nation is that people don’t like it. In Texas, 89% of voters – including majorities of Black, Hispanic and Democrat voters – support presenting an official ID to vote; 81% support requiring some form of ID to vote by mail; 89% support audits of voter lists to ensure dead voters, people who have moved out of state or non-citizens aren’t registered; and 83% support protections to ensure poll watchers can’t be prevented from doing their jobs.
Most importantly, by a two to one margin, Texans reject the Democrats’ flight out of state. Texans want their elected lawmakers to work, not walk. Maybe this is why the lawmakers appear to be returning home.
The original U.S. Constitution did not define voting rights for citizens, and until 1870 only white men were allowed to vote. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 1870 did give blacks the right to vote, but it was not until 1966 and the passage of laws preventing racial discrimination were signed that all the barriers were beaten down.
Like anything that has been around for a few generations, our election process is steeped in modes that are now more tradition than practicality.
In 1845, when Congress established a national election day, it had to be a Tuesday because farmers went to church on Sunday, went to market on Wednesday, and may have needed a day traveling by horse and buggy, Monday, to get to their polling place. Keep in mind that in the mid 1800’s the U.S. was mostly an agricultural society. November was chosen as the month for similar reasons: it was after the fall harvest, but before the worst of winter when travel would be difficult. Travel mattered not just for farmers getting to town to vote, but also for transporting election results to state capitals.
But these days, Tuesdays are actually quite inconvenient for many Americans, particularly those who can’t take time off work to vote – a problem that disproportionately affects low income and minority voters. In a Pew Research Center study of the 2016 election 14% of registered voters cited “being too busy or having a conflicting schedule” as the main reason they did not vote. There were also issues sited of a person’s polling place being “far from their workplace” or “long lines during peak voting hours” before or after work.
Voter turnout in the U.S. is considered generally quite low compared to other developed democracies. In the 2016 election, only 56% of voting age Americans cast a ballot. In 2020 that number rose to 66% which appears to be the highest in 120 years. Whether accurate or not, elected officials like to think that making it easier to vote would advantage one party at the expense of the other.
27 Democratic countries have moved their election day to cover a full weekend, or made it a federal holiday. To not disenfranchise Jews the election could not exclusively be on Saturday’s and for many Christians Sunday would not be a good election day. Even the notion of a federal election holiday is not a full solutions. Those with the lowest paying jobs are the ones most likely to still have to work and seek child care when the polls are open.
Mail-in ballots have been around for a number of years, but with the pandemic more U.S. voters explored this alternate to Election Day chaos. However, rules, dates, deadlines vary from state to state and can be confusing to many voters. In the case of California, the mail-in ballots were automatically pushed to all registered voters. California’s approach of trusting everyone will do the right thing may be naïve, but it is at least well intentioned. For democracy to work voting needs to be considered a responsibility. Those individual who put thought and consideration into their vote need to be assured access to vote. On the other hand, doling out ballots like free samples at a big box store hurts the credibility of the process. Credibility matters. While no one has demonstrably proved there was election fraud, auditors and poll watchers were inhibited from close access on Election Day and our signature based mail-in verification is wide open to fraud in an era when other options are available. Interestingly, while we send election monitors all over the world to audit other countries elections, we struggle to support the same transparency at home.
President Biden recently said, "There is an unfolding assault taking place in America today, an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote in fair and free elections, an assault on democracy, an assault on liberty, an assault on who we are as Americans." In principle the words sound good, but in practice our processes for voting and verifying the legitimacy of ballots has fallen far behind the time. No one has shown that requiring ID to vote actually deprives a legitimate citizen of their opportunity to vote.
Our election process is a responsibility both on the part of the citizen and on government. Citizens need to care enough to want to vote. Government institutions need to ensure the classic “one-person, one-vote,” but only to eligible voters. When an election is over, there will be voters whose candidate has lost. For these voters to accept the outcome, the election process must be both secure in its methods of limiting fraud, and transparent in its ability to be audited. This is ultimately not a Democratic or Republican issue, this is an American issue and it is critical we get it right.
Just because the way we do something is tradition, doesn’t mean we need to keep doing.