It’s impossible in U.S. society not to frequently encounter the demand to vote, no matter what, no matter for whom, as a basic civic duty. Voting is supremely important, we’re told, a right, a responsibility, a moral requirement, something people died for which if you don’t use (even if it’s useless) you will effectively be pissing on their graves. I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said “If everyone would vote, it wouldn’t matter what the billionaires wanted.”
Let’s accept all of that at face value for the sake of argument. Let’s suppose it is our primary duty as members of society to vote. Personally, I always do, and it takes about 5 minutes out of my year. Sometimes I even promote candidates, and one might ask why that isn’t a supreme duty too, since it can impact how and whether numerous other people exercise their sacred duty to vote. Or we could extend that line of thinking further and ask why it isn’t the duty of each of us to work to change our culture so that only better candidates can get nominated, since that seems relevant to our duty to vote for some of those candidates. But I want to ask a different question at the moment.
Why does it seem to be of so little importance in U.S. media and politics that U.S. elections be brought up to, say, Bolivian standards of openness, fairness, participation, and verifiability? Is it our duty to keep up appearances despite living in an oligarchy? Or is it our duty to actually create some form of representative government that we can respectably mislabel a “democracy”?
At least part of the answer to why corporate media and elected officials care so little about reforming the U.S. system of elections is that many in power do not want more people voting or their votes being counted (more on this below). Another part of the answer is that everyone in power was put there through the current system. Another part of the answer is probably that once you’ve told people that all they can do is vote or be miserable, it’s hard to tell them all the things they’d need to do to reform the system of voting, and it’s not plausible to tell them that they can vote themselves the right to meaningful votes. Also, it’s a matter of basic national faith, even if nobody believes it, that the United States is not broken, especially in any ways that any other countries are not broken — and you can’t fix what’s not broken.
Yet another part of the answer is sheer inertia. The U.S. electoral system is exactly like everything else in the United States in not having been reformed. This is a country that doesn’t use the metric system or end the semi-annual changing of everybody’s clocks, purely because that would amount to doing something, not because any powerful group opposes it. Yet, the U.S. election system has not just been staying the same. It’s been getting worse.
Thom Hartmann’s latest book is called The Hidden History of the War on Voting, and I like it despite despising the use of the word “war” for things that aren’t wars. Hartmann lays out a case that rightwing think tanks, media outlets, pundits, and politicians are working hard to make voting in the United States harder for some and easier for others. The case includes documentation of racism, disinformation campaigns, voter suppression, gerrymandering, unverifiable vote counting, and keeping inspiring candidates off the ballots through financial corruption, corporate media bias, and other means.
As with many things in U.S. politics, this is a tale of Republican action and Democratic inaction. Republican secretaries of state have purged 17 million people from the election rolls just between 2016 and 2018. After the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, 14 GOP-controlled states restricted access to voting within a year, especially for communities of color, students, and retired people. North Carolina closed 158 polling places in the 40 counties with the most African Americans. Nationwide, black and Hispanic voters typically wait much longer in line to vote. Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s voter ID law reduced African American voting by 11.5 percent in that state.
Nixon sabotaged peace talks. Reagan sabotaged hostage release plans. But by the year 2000, the Republican platform only stood a chance if voters were prevented from voting, so that’s where the emphasis went. Florida threw tens of thousands of African American voters off the rolls, and still needed an assist from the U.S. Supreme Court to steal the presidency for George W. Bush.
The trend continued. Between 2012 and 2016, Ohio purged over 2 million voters, over two-thirds of them in heavily African American and Hispanic counties. In Wisconsin about 17,000 voters were turned away in Wisconsin for lacking the type of ID required by a new ID law.
In numerous states, ID laws disproportionately prevent women from voting, as they’ve disproportionately changed their names upon marriage or divorce. In North Dakota, legislators passed a law requiring a street address to vote, precisely because Native Americans tended not to have street addresses.
Here are the nations that do not provide a right to vote in their Constitutions:
- United States
- United Kingdom
I should have just said “the world’s leading democracies,” right? Some U.S. states are now making it a crime carrying jail time to make the slightest mistake on a voter registration form. Land of the free!
Don’t Mention It
To his credit, Hartmann mentions the unmentionable when it comes to U.S. elections. There are so many other problems that one hardly needs to mention that which must not be mentioned, and yet Hartmann does mention it. The rest of the world treats, and the U.S. prior to 2000 treated, exit polls as the gold standard by which to measure the credibility of election results. In the U.S. post-2000, the official results are used to “adjust” exit polls to match their unbelievable results. Oddly, the adjustment is almost always in the direction of more votes for Republicans — hence the name “red shift.” In states without Republican secretaries of state, there is virtually no shift, and never has been.
If Hillary Clinton had not had her heart set on blaming Russians, she might have blamed quite a few things for her 2016 defeat, including: an electoral college that gives a win to a loser; open intimidation and incitement of violence; stripping of voters from rolls; court battles to oppose the counting of votes; voter ID laws; a scarcity of polling places in poor neighborhoods; corporate media that promoted Donald Trump because it was good for ratings; her own godawful resume and campaign; etc. And also this: the exit polls showed Clinton winning Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, but an inexplicable red shift altered those results.
I’m not sure why this is so unmentionable. Canada and Ireland tried electronic voting machines and rejected them because they were unverifiable. Even if you hold a firm belief that people who will go to enormous lengths to prevent the “wrong sort” from voting would never ever fail to count everyone’s votes once cast, what would be the harm in having paper ballots hand-counted at every polling place before every relevant witness, and re-counted if needed? What would it hurt? You couldn’t wait a day for the results after three years of offensive, infantilizing, degrading, distracting, and depressing electioneering? When Brian Kemp oversaw his own election as Governor of Georgia, was sued, and immediately erased all the data on a server to prevent any vote counting, was that a sensible adult step to ward off any crazy speculation that might infect young people with habits of paranoia? Does it matter that in many cases the trust you’re placing is not in people at all, but in private corporations that now privately own U.S. election data?
I thought that the fear of computer hacking by foreigners that has arisen in recent years was going to finally be enough to move people toward verifiable vote counting, but thus far it hasn’t.
What Do We Do?
The key answer is that we need non-voting activism of the sort that has always changed the world. Look at the packed streets in Beirut and Puerto Rico and Chile and Bolivia and Colombia and Hong Kong and South Korea, and the empty streets of Washington, D.C. We need activism, disruptive and constructive, the 1,001 tools of nonviolent engagement and cultural change.
But what do we need to demand? Hartmann points for part of the answer to a bill in Congress called HR1. The bill includes, among much else: automatic voter registration; same-day voter registration; bans on caging (sending postcards to voters and then removing them from the rolls if they don’t reply); restoration of voting rights to former prisoners; requirement of paper ballots (albeit without requiring hand counting); measures to prevent gerrymandering; and public disclosure of campaign “contributions.”
Other solutions that might be added to a to-do list include: abolish human rights for corporations; abolish the treatment of spending money as free speech; create full public financing of elections; ban private campaign funding; establish the personal right to vote; make election day a holiday; provide free air time in equal measure to candidates qualified by signature gathering; get rid of the electoral college; allow ranked choice voting; require voting; make DC and Puerto Rico states; abolish the U.S. Senate.
Climate Change Causes Witch Hunting
Hartmann tells a story in his book about the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, which took place at an unseasonably warm time, during which people outside in the streets beat a woman to death for being a witch and causing the heat in an attempt to kill them.
I’m reminded of the popular claim that climate change causes war. This is generally taken to (somehow) be an antiwar claim, even when the Pentagon makes it, and certainly when environmental groups that wouldn’t touch peace activism with a ten-foot pole make it.
But what about “Climate change causes witch hunting.” When we phrase it that way, does it become possible to recognize the existence of human agency, the fact that it is a belief in the acceptability of witch hunting, and a decision to engage in witch hunting, that cause witch hunting?
Now it’s true that the heat was a factor in Philadelphia, and it’s true that the drought was a factor in Syria. But when we say that war causes climate change, rather than climate change causes war, we make much more sense. War (as currently fought) is a huge producer of the pollution that causes climate change, in the strict sense of the term “causes.” We’re talking here about a non-human physical process.
Claiming that climate change causes war or witch hunting is a stretch of the idea of causation, for the simple reason that in a society that rejects witch hunting or in a society that rejects war, climate change is utterly powerless to cause any such thing.
The Russiagate delusion is, in Hartmann’s book, limited to two goofy paragraphs in which he suggests that Trump could be a “Manchurian candidate” for foreign powers. Not bad at all as these things go.
Even as the electoral system has worsened, a far better than average presidential candidate has shown potential to win. Electing Bernie Sanders would not change the world by itself, and he may get himself elected in part because he knows that, he knows that public activism will be required. But it’s probably on these occasions, just as rare at the Congressional level, when there’s actually somebody to vote for, that a case for voting — and for creating an open and reliable system for voting — can be most strongly appreciated.