The cracks in American democracy
Last week, citizens of “the free world” cast their ballots for the 46th President of the United States. The world watched, not only because the United States has an important role in global politics, but also due to widespread recognition of the United States as one of the world’s most well-known democracies. This observation came with the realization that the world’s first draft of democracy needs major revision. In some regard, U.S. elections are conducted differently than in other democracies. These differences reveal weaknesses in American democracy.
The first problem to consider is that Americans vote less than those in other developed countries. During the 2016 presidential election, only 55.4% of eligible voters actually turned out to vote. This means that over 100 million eligible Americans did not vote in 2016. Between 2014 and 2016, countries like New Zealand, South Korea, Sweden and Belgium held national elections. They saw 75.7%, 77.9%, 84.6% and 87.2% voter turnouts, respectively. This fact alone is shameful to American democracy.
Beyond the problem of low voter turnout, another issue exists in American democracy. Although definitions slightly differ, democracies are typically described as systems of governance where the majority of the population decides who governs and distributes power. One individual, one vote. In the United States, however, the current president was chosen by a minority of American voters. In 2016, of the 55.4% of Americans who voted, 48.2% voted for former Secretary of State Clinton while only 46.1% voted for President Donald Trump. Trump won because of the Electoral College — a majority of Americans did not want him to be their president, but he prevailed nonetheless because he received a plurality of votes in more states that are assigned larger numbers of electoral votes. So, however disturbing this may sound, the current U.S. president was elected by only about 25.5% of eligible voters in an election where another candidate received more votes. The “American democracy” upholds a system that prioritizes the voice of the outdated Electoral College more than the majority.
In any strong democracy, there would be efforts to encourage more people to vote. During an election with historic turnout, however, Trump demanded, via a Nov. 5 tweet, that election officials must “STOP THE COUNT.” It seems as though the president did not want Americans to turn up and vote. In any true democracy, a candidate of any election could not make such a demand. That is because, unlike in the United States, most strong democracies have elections run by independent electoral bodies, not politicians. The problem with politicians running elections was illustrated when Stacey Abrams ran against Brian Kemp for the governor of Georgia in 2018. The New York Times, along with other news outlets, reported issues of voter suppression in that election. This included “about 670,000 voter registrations purged in 2017 and about 53,000 voter registrations pending a month before the election.” These votes were purged and voter registrations were unprocessed under the oversight of the Secretary of State, Brian Kemp. Essentially, part of his duties were to oversee the election that he was a candidate for. Even after protests, he still presided over that election, which he eventually won. For many non-Americans, who are used to elections being overseen by independent electoral bodies, this is a shocking conflict of interest. It is inevitable that this conflict of interest will be abused and that a politician like Trump can confidently say things like, “STOP THE COUNT.” After all, he is a president that governs a nation where candidates have a precedent of deciding which votes count and which do not.
Trump is also president of a country where some citizens do not vote, not because they do not want to, but because they are actively experiencing voter suppression. This failure of democracy is strange, even when compared to countries that are considered weaker democracies. For example, in South Africa, every citizen over the age of 18 has the inalienable right to vote. The South African Independent Electoral Commission’s website says that if any adult South African citizen asks, “Can I vote?” the answer is always “YES!” Whether they are in hospital, in prison, living abroad or have lost proper documentation, as long as the person is a citizen over the age of 18, their vote is inalienable and their name cannot be taken off any voter roll. That, unfortunately, cannot be said about the 53,000 Georgians who could not vote for their governor in 2018 because they had pending voter registration, or the 1.4 million felons in Florida who have found themselves having to purchase their ability to vote in the 2020 presidential election.
Additionally, it is imperative to consider the fact that South Africa makes the right to vote inalienable because that country, like the United States, has a deep and persisting history of racial inequality. It is also incredibly disturbing to note the fact that these laws that prevent certain Americans from voting disportionately affect Americans of color. The Washington Post reported that about 70% of the suppressed votes in Georgia’s 2018 governor’s race were of Black potential voters. Countries like South Africa are doing a better job at addressing inequality in voting than the United States. America must improve its consideration of how its history affects today’s realities when constructing laws about who can and cannot vote.
The fact is that the United States named itself the world’s model for democracy and none of its citizens questioned that. The reality, however, is that the unexamined issues that lie in the American electoral system are too many to be discussed in one article. The system clearly demonstrates some undemocratic tendencies. Who knows what further cracks in American democracy the 2020 elections will reveal? Maybe it is time for Americans to step back and observe better models of democracy across the globe.