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American democracy is being derailed. Can faith be restored?

Not all votes or voters are treated equally – many are thwarted and undermined at every turn


Richard Wolffe

Richard Wolffe – The Guardian/December 20, 2016

Now that the electoral college has formally selected the next president of the United States, it’s worth taking a deep breath and asking: what kind of democracy do we live in?

The will of the people ought to be clear after an election. But as 2016 draws to a close, there are deeply troubling signs that American democracy – after 227 years of seeking a more perfect union – has left the rails.

It turns out it’s possible to win the governorship in North Carolina but find the job is stripped of power before you’re sworn into office.

And across the nation, we abide by the archaic rules of an electoral college that has all but renounced its first responsibility: to elect someone fit to be president.

The Founders may have wanted to prevent demagogues from taking power, but party hacks ignored all that original intent. It makes you wonder why the candidates and voters abide by the rules of a game that nobody is interested in playing.

It doesn’t matter, apparently, that Donald Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million. The state-by-state popular vote, and the allocations of electoral college votes, are more important. That would be fine if the electoral college itself did what Alexander Hamilton wanted: ensure that the presidency would “never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications”. But, they didn’t.

Judging from his tweets this past weekend, it’s unclear that Donald Trump can spell requisite. It would also be unpleasant to discuss whether he is eminently endowed with anything.

The nature of what we call democracy is sadly no longer an abstract discussion beloved of political science professors. Trump won Florida by little more than 100,000 votes. Yet as the Brennan Center points out, the state disenfranchises 1.6 million from voting, including one in five African Americans.

Florida is one of just three states to impose an effective lifetime voting ban on anyone with a past felony conviction. Restoring voting rights in Florida is the exception, not the rule. Denying voting rights is the racist legacy of Jim Crow laws, and its survival to this day is a stain on our democracy.

A man holds a sign inside the state capitol shortly after the electoral college cast their vote in Austin, Texas, putting Donald Trump over the 270 votes needed.

A man holds a sign inside the state capital shortly after the electoral college cast their vote in Austin, Texas, putting Donald Trump over the 270 votes needed. Photograph: Tamir Kalifa/AP

Many inside the conservative echo chamber raise the specter of voter fraud to justify their ever-expanding efforts to limit or stop early voting, and impose voter identification laws that discourage older, minority voters from exercising their right to vote. But it’s clear from the reports of election officials across the country that such fraud is almost non-existent.

No matter what the president-elect claims, there were no cases of widespread fraud that denied him victory in the popular vote. The only surprise is that a majority of Republicans believe, wrongly, that Trump won the popular vote at all.

Real voter fraud is institutional, not individual. You can find it in North Carolina, where the defeated Republican governor claimed he lost more than half the state’s counties to voter fraud. (In fact, just a handful of cases of emerged.)

Pat McCrory was not content with imposing voter ID laws that a federal appeals court condemned for “discriminatory intent” that would “target African Americans with almost surgical precision”.

His parting gift for his Democratic successor, Roy Cooper, was to strip him of his powers to appoint a majority to the state board of elections, and with it, all the county boards of elections. By some remarkable twist of fate, the new laws give Republicans a majority on these boards in congressional and presidential election years.

In case you think this kind of thing is normal in a place like North Carolina, this is a system that has been in place since 1901.

Donald Trump’s victory is often mentioned in the same sentence as the Brexit vote in the UK to leave the European Union. The nationalist sentiments behind both results, along with their racist and anti-immigrant overtones, make such comparisons all too easy.

But the truth is that Trump’s win differs from the Brexit referendum in one rather important regard: he does not represent the will of the people. The critics of the Brexit result are constantly hectored into silence by those who brandish the voting tallies: anyone who opposes Brexit is surely an undemocratic elitist.

Trump can make no such claim to represent the majority of Americans. That may not stop him from doing so. But the facts are stubborn things: he only represents the majority of the electoral college.

Donald Trump is the fifth president to lose the popular vote but win the White House.

Donald Trump is the fifth president to lose the popular vote but win the White House. Photograph: Tamir Kalifa/AP

The last time this happened, after the disputed recount in Florida (where voting rights are so carefully respected), George W Bush promised to govern as a uniter. Having lost the popular vote by more than half a million, Bush’s first major legislation was on education reform, and it was led by that Democratic lion, the late Ted Kennedy.

If Trump is planning some major bipartisan healing, with a prominent Democratic senator leading the way, he has a greater capacity for secrecy than his Twitter feed suggests.

For the record, Trump will be just the fifth president to lose the popular vote but win the presidency. Trump’s defeat in the popular vote is greater than all his freak-result predecessors combined. All of them limped into office and never recovered bipartisan support.

Then again, Republicans denied their support for eight years to the man who clearly won both the popular vote and electoral college in 2008 and 2012.

For his part, Barack Obama sounded astonished at the state of our democracy. “In some cases, you have voters and elected officials who have more confidence and faith in a foreign adversary than they have in their neighbors,” he said in his otherwise muted press conference last week.

“People have asked me: how do you feel after the election and so forth? And I say: well, look, this is a clarifying moment. It’s a useful reminder that voting counts, politics counts.”

Voting surely counts, and too many Democrats failed to realize that until it was too late. But it’s also true that not all votes count equally today, and not all voters are treated equally.

After four more years of underhand tactics in places like North Carolina and Florida, Democrats will need to work much harder to restore their faith in democracy.

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