The Sad State of American Democracy

This is not a post about Bernie, Hillary, Trump, Cruz, or any individual candidate. This is a post about the system we use to elect such candidates. The events in Arizona’s recent Presidential primary are what spurred me to write on the topic. Hillary and Trump both won Arizona, but again the result of the primary is nowhere near as upsetting to me as the process by which it happened.

From my perspective, it seems to me that American democracy and the power of the vote are slowly but surely being wrestled away from the American people. We pride ourselves on the idea that one person gets one vote, and each person is free to vote for whoever they want to vote for. The latter idea still seems to hold true to a certain degree, but whether or not people are even allowed or able to vote in the first place is where problems lie.

I think our electoral system is being slowly but surely tilted against the poor and working classes. I think that legislatures at the local, state, and federal levels are actively attempting to keep the most under-represented in our society from voting for those who represent their interests. Of course, there is no one law or legal ruling that says, “poor/working class people can’t vote.” Such a law phrased in that way would be unconstitutional. It’s much more subtle than that, and it is happening in a variety of ways instead of just one blanket-ban.

Less Access to Polling Stations

What happened yesterday in AZ is a microcosm of what is happening nationwide. The primary was held on a workday in a state where the legislature recently reduced the number of polling stations from over 200 in 2012 to just 60 now. Less polling stations inevitably lead to longer lines at each polling station that was actually open. Some voters were forced to wait in line for 3-4 hours just to cast a vote.

For the retired or those who don’t need to work everyday, this is not a problem. They have the luxury of being able to wait around for their turn. However, the poorest among us who work for hourly wages simply cannot afford to stand in line for that long on a day in which employers will be expecting them to work. If I am working my hourly job and my boss affords me an hour to go vote, I would have to leave the polling station or risk discipline or even losing my job. This is just one way in which the working classes are forced to choose between exercising constitutional rights or providing for themselves/their families.

Gerrymandering

For those who are unfamiliar with this term, gerrymandering occurs when a legislative body redraws the lines of election districts in order to give the party or person in power an unfair advantage in the next election. Districts are frequently redrawn not only along the lines of voting demographics, but racial demographics as well. Gerrymandering happens at all levels of American government, and I think it’s about time people realized just how much this process hurts democracy.

Lets say (for example) that one particular area of the country, or a particular state, always votes Democrat. No matter who the candidate is or what the issues are, this particular chunk of America always votes Democrat. Well, those in power can fix that. Through re-drawing the election district lines, they can dilute the Democrat-leaning sentiment in the area. Let’s now say that the Republicans win control of Congress, despite the votes of those in the Democrat stronghold. That happens, and that’s democracy. Where I have an issue is when the party in power then passes legislation that divides that one Democrat district into 5 or 6 different districts that are more mixed ideologically, thus giving the Republicans more of an advantage in the next election.

In America, district lines are not redrawn based purely on ideology. Sadly, they are often redrawn based on race as well. This is technically unconstitutional, but it still happens frequently anyway due to the difficulty of being able to prove that race was the main factor in redrawing the lines. If an area of the country is populated by a racial minority, then that electoral district is frequently redrawn or re-defined to include people of all races. That might sound like a good idea on paper (more equal for everyone), but due to the fact that there are less black/Latino/Asian people in America than white/Caucasian people, it leads to disproportionate racial representation in our governing bodies. People still get to vote, but their vote now means less.

Gerrymandering has existed since the inception of America, but it’s time that something was done so that no political party can gain an unfair advantage in retaining it’s power within our legislatures.

Voting Laws

The Voting Rights Act of 1964 was designed and implemented to make sure that states and the federal government did not unfairly restrict anyone’s right to vote, particularly that of racial minorities. The recent Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act, making it much easier for states to discriminate against the poor/minorities. Again, states cannot simply come out and say “people under a certain income can’t vote” or “people of a certain race can’t vote”, it’s more subtle than that.

Since that ruling in 2013, many states have enacted new voter ID laws designed to keep the poor from voting. This is all done in the name of supposedly protecting the integrity of the voting process and to reduce voter fraud, but all it has done is prevent thousands from casting votes they have the right to cast. It’s one thing to require some form of ID to be able to vote, but it’s another thing to require specific IDs that can be hard to obtain. It’s also difficult to obtain the requisite ID when the government office that issues the ID is only open on certain days when the voter has other obligations (work, family) to fulfill. This is exactly what is happening in many US states, mainly in the south and midwest.

Further, there are laws that also prevent former felons from voting. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the rate of incarceration is so high in this country that those who escape the hell of prison cannot be ignored as a voting bloc. It could easily be argued that those who are in prison should not be allowed to vote, but that’s not what I’m going for here. Part of the punishment for committing a crime worthy of incarceration is that you don’t get to choose who runs the government. I do feel however that once a person has served his/her time and been released, there should be no law that prevents them from voting.

We all know the demographics of our prisons by now. They are predominantly populated by blacks and Latinos. So in states where former convicts cannot vote, it is blacks and Latinos that are prevented from casting their vote. It is estimated that 1/3 of black men in the state of Florida cannot vote because of laws such as these. That means a full 1/3 of black men have no say in how their state is governed, even though they have fully paid their debt to society.

Your Voting Rights are Shrinking, but Corporate Voting Rights are Expanding

As if reducing the individual person’s right to vote wasn’t bad enough, it is also simultaneously getting easier for corporations to exercise influence over elections. Of course, corporations cannot vote. Representatives for McDonald’s can’t show up to polling stations and cast votes in McDonald’s name. That doesn’t mean that corporations don’t have influence, though. Another infamous Supreme Court ruling, which has become known as the Citizens United ruling, essentially struck down most of the restrictions and limits on corporate campaign contributions. This is why elections from the local level all the way up to the Presidency are funded by corporations with deep pockets.

A simplistic but nonetheless realistic example: Nestle gives millions to Hillary Clinton to help her become president. Nestle is not just giving Hillary money because they believe she is the best candidate. They are giving her money because in the future they know that it buys support from Hillary for future legislation that directly or indirectly affects Nestle and it’s business operations. Let’s say there is an environmental bill that Congress just passed which would prevent the construction of a Nestle factory where they want to build one. Nestle then can say to Hillary, “Look, we gave you funds to get elected. Those funds will not be there next time you run if you sign this bill.” Guess what happens 9 times out of 10? That bill does not get signed. Hillary would not then come out and say that it’s because of Nestle’s campaign contributions that she didn’t sign the bill, but that would be the real reason why.

Does the individual voter have this kind of power? No. I can call my local legislator and tell him not to vote for a bill, but unless I’ve donated thousands (or millions) to his campaign, he’s probably not going to listen to me. It’s not worth his time.

This All Can Be Fixed–But It Won’t Be

To fix the access problem, we only need to design a system for online voting. That’s difficult, but it surely can be done. Allowing people the option to vote online means they don’t have to leave work or take time off. This way we don’t have to force employers to give people time off to vote. As long as the process is secure, there is no reason why our government can’t work with tech companies to come up with a way to allow people to vote online. Pretty much everyone has access to the internet in America, and those who don’t can still go to a library or even vote in-person if they choose to do so. There are tons of ways to make access to the polls more open for everyone.

We can also fix the gerrymandering, voter ID issues, and campaign finance with simple legislation. None of that is going to happen though, because of the problem I mentioned just before this one: corporations indirectly run this country. They are the ones with the power because they are the ones with the money. No corporation in its right mind would give tons of money to a politician if they know that politician is going to change campaign finance laws while he/she is in office. Both the politician and the corporation would lose their power and influence if that were to happen, and the biggest fear of anyone who holds power is losing that power.

Everyone can still choose who they want to vote for (if they can see through the bullshit fed to us by a corporate media), but the power of the vote has been heavily diluted in a variety of ways entirely beyond our control. We have less access to the polls in a number of ways and our vote has been diluted even when we are allowed to cast it, because in the eyes of politicians the will of the people matters less than what the corporate donors want.

America is well on it’s way to becoming a plutocracy, or a government run by the rich, rather than a democracy. That’s not the America I grew up in and not the America I want to live in.

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