Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The World’s Oldest Democracy Is One of Its Worst

When it comes to equality at the ballot box, the United States has become a global outlier.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
U.S. voters cast their ballots.
Voters cast their ballots at a Masonic lodge in Los Angeles, California, on June 5, 2018. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state of Arizona had the right to adopt laws, disqualifying votes cast in the wrong precinct and prohibiting organizations from bringing ballots from voters to polling places, that were transparently designed to place hurdles in the path of Democrats seeking to vote. Since most of the United States’ Republican-dominated states have already passed or are now seeking to pass similar or yet more restrictive rules, the United States may soon become the world’s only established democracy where members of one party have managed to make it much harder for members of the other party to cast a ballot. Republicans do not want democracy to operate; it’s possible they’ll succeed.

When it comes to electoral rules, the United States is an outlier among democracies. Freedom House ranks countries on a scale of 1 to 4 on three electoral metrics: whether elections for heads of state are free and fair, whether legislative elections are free and fair, and whether electoral laws are fairly and impartially administered. Almost all major democracies, and many minor ones—like Jamaica and Romania—get a perfect 12. The United States gets a 10, which puts it in company with Poland, a country that barely qualifies as democratic at all.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state of Arizona had the right to adopt laws, disqualifying votes cast in the wrong precinct and prohibiting organizations from bringing ballots from voters to polling places, that were transparently designed to place hurdles in the path of Democrats seeking to vote. Since most of the United States’ Republican-dominated states have already passed or are now seeking to pass similar or yet more restrictive rules, the United States may soon become the world’s only established democracy where members of one party have managed to make it much harder for members of the other party to cast a ballot. Republicans do not want democracy to operate; it’s possible they’ll succeed.

When it comes to electoral rules, the United States is an outlier among democracies. Freedom House ranks countries on a scale of 1 to 4 on three electoral metrics: whether elections for heads of state are free and fair, whether legislative elections are free and fair, and whether electoral laws are fairly and impartially administered. Almost all major democracies, and many minor ones—like Jamaica and Romania—get a perfect 12. The United States gets a 10, which puts it in company with Poland, a country that barely qualifies as democratic at all.

U.S. President Joe Biden has castigated the new raft of state laws as “Jim Crow in the 21st century.” The laws will certainly have—and are designed to have—the same effect of suppressing Black turnout as did the poll tax and literacy test of yore, but it is probably fair to say that today’s Republicans, unlike yesterday’s southern Democrats, would be quite content to let Black people vote if only they would vote Republican. Racial discrimination has become a means rather than an end.

It is absolutely true that the legacy of slavery and legalized racism makes the United States different from virtually every other democracy in the world. Yet it is the gross politicization of the U.S. electoral process that allows parties at the state and federal level to reshape the rules to their own benefit. What one might call the United States’ “negative exceptionalism” arises not only from the role of race but from constitutional design—or rather from abuses made possible by that design.

Delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention barely discussed electoral rules and would have had very little precedent from other countries to draw on. Nor did they give thought to the role of parties, which most considered invidious. Preoccupied as many were with checking rather than enabling federal power, they left virtually all electoral rules to the states and provided no federal election oversight.

Modern constitution drafters, by contrast, had abundant experience of democratic dysfunction to draw on. The Constitution of India, drawn up in 1949, established a commission to oversee the preparation and conduct of all elections, both at the “Union” and state level, and stipulated that its members are to be appointed by the president, a nonpartisan figure. The constitution even prohibits the judiciary from changing the allotment of seats or boundary lines, which are to be fixed by India’s Parliament. India’s elections are wild free-for-alls where winners sometimes switch parties for cash; but India’s Election Commission has powers, including intervening to stop abusive or corrupt practices, that would be unthinkable for the United States’ feeble and hopelessly deadlocked Federal Election Commission.

Changing boundary lines to rig an election in your favor is, of course, a venerable U.S. tradition that goes by the name “gerrymandering.” Two features of the U.S. system make this form of backroom conniving possible: the delegation of authority to the states and the weakness of checks on party power at the state level. In A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective, author Steven A. Taylor noted that although a few other countries with federal systems, like Germany, give provincial governments power over local elections, only in the United States do states also set the rules for all federal elections. And politicians exercise virtually total control over electoral rules at the state level.

Even before former U.S. President Donald Trump hypnotized his party to believe Democrats were colluding with “the deep state” to steal elections from him, Americans held furious debates over issues that just don’t arise elsewhere in the democratic world. According to Sarah Repucci, head of research at Freedom House, gerrymandering is a practice almost exclusive to electoral autocracies like Jordan (and Hungary, now deemed “partly free”). European political leaders have not sought to put obstacles in the way of registering to or actually voting. Money matters much less. The United States is highly unusual in regarding political contributions as protected speech and in treating companies and other entities like “natural persons” in terms of those speech rights.

It is troubling enough that in the United States, as elsewhere in the world, faith in democracy is yielding to the wish for a strongman who will put things right or restore an imaginary golden age. What is distinctive about the United States is the way in which a localized, politicized, market-based political culture, abetted both by intense polarization and racism, has enabled anti-democratic forces to reduce the vote of the other side and thus win elections even when they constitute a minority. In a 2004 essay—long before Trump—Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution summed up what then seemed to be the most salient features of the U.S. electoral system: “a suspicion of authority, political control of bureaucrats, decentralization, parochialism, and a highly contentious and political judicial process.”

Other democracies have found ways of reforming dysfunctional elements of their system of voting and representation. After several elections in which numerical minorities elected parliamentary majorities, New Zealand’s government appointed a commission that recommended the country switch to a system of proportional representation that would more accurately embody voter preferences and enhance the status of minority parties (a system used in much of the democratic world). The government accepted the findings, a referendum in 1992 and 1993 endorsed the change—and New Zealand switched systems to general and lasting acclaim.

The U.S. electoral system can be reformed only by a forcible imposition of national rules on a localized system. Democrats are hoping to do just that: The House bill known as H.R. 1 would, among other things, make registration automatic, prohibit gerrymandering, sharply restrict campaign spending, strengthen the Federal Election Commission, extend absentee and early voting, and prohibit the disenfranchisement of ex-felons. Such a bill, if made law, would align the United States with its democratic peers. It is, however, a dead letter in the Senate; having exploited the system to tilt elections in their favor at the state level, Republicans are not about to let Democrats scotch their move in Washington. They have seized on the Senate’s own anti-democratic rule that 60 members must vote to end a filibuster in order to prevent debate on any effort to overturn anti-democratic measures by the states. The question of the moment is whether even the most modest legislation now envisioned, which would reestablish federal oversight of jurisdictions systematically suppressing the vote, could pass in the Senate. The answer is almost certainly no.

In the course of his visit to the United States almost two centuries ago, French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville found nothing he admired quite so much as the United States’ culture of local politics—the proliferation of elective offices that taught citizens the arts of self-government and gave them a stake in their national democracy. That culture still exists in many older parts of the country. But the spirit of polarization has so thoroughly poisoned the United States’ grassroots that decentralization has become a fearsome tool in the hands of anti-democrats. Here the analogy with Jim Crow is all too apt, for Southern racists long took shelter in the constitutional protection of “states’ rights.”

I’m a believer in Biden; he has responded boldly to the great economic and public health crisis of our time. But curing what ails U.S. democracy, as he hopes to do, may be beyond his powers. If that’s true, his achievements may prove to be short lived.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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