If one asks what the government of the United States is, the answer is most likely to be “democratic.” The word “democracy,” with all its positive connotations, invokes the image of people exercising their political rights by voting in open elections for the candidates they support and trusting and respecting the emerging results. Even though the United States did not start as a democracy and it took hundreds of years to ensure voting rights for the general populations in its entirety, these are still not the grounds to view American voting as a success. While there is a technical possibility of voting, the trust in the system is rapidly declining – and, unless it is regained, Americans can lose the conviction that their votes matter as they should in a democracy.
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If one looks at the history of election rights in the United States, it would be easy to paint as a triumphant march toward voter inclusion. Yet the country did not begin as a democracy – on the contrary, it started on the premise that “voting was not a right but a privilege” and, as such, should be reserved for property-owning white males (Keyssar 9). The first major expansion came during the so-called Jacksonian Democracy when states began dropping property requirements, and considerable numbers of propertyless white men received the right to vote (Keyssar 50). The next major step came in 1868 when Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment and proclaimed that voting rights would not be abridged based on race or condition of servitude (Keyssar 100). Finally, yet another step in the long process of expanding legal voting rights to the broader population, women received voting rights on the federal level in 1919, with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment supported by President Wilson himself (Keyssar 219). Thus, if one looks superficially at this progress, it may seem that the history of voting in the United States was an ultimate success.
Yet the problem with this approach is that it only considers the situation de jure rather than de facto. If one thinks about it logically, legal opportunity to vote does not necessarily mean that people can or will exercise their political rights in practice. American history demonstrates a broad range of political practices designed to limit voting rights for certain groups – most often African Americans in Southern states. During and after the Reconstruction, Southern whites terrorized the black population into refraining from voting, often with the use of violence (Epperly et al. 758). Another approach was disenfranchising selected groups, such as those convicted of a crime – which, in the Southern judicial system, tended to be overwhelmingly black (Epperly et al. 759). These examples demonstrate that it was perfectly possible in the United States to have a Constitution that seemingly guaranteed universal suffrage and the political reality that undercut it in local, regional, or sectional interests. With this in mind, it becomes harder to paint the history of voting in American democracy as a success – it begins looking more like a failure.
Yet another example of how American democracy does not live up to the expectation of its entitled voters is much more recent. Democracy as a political institution rests on the assumption of fair elections – and this assumption can only serve as a solid foundation as long as the enfranchised citizens perceive elections as fair. Yet this is not the case in the contemporary United States anymore. In 2016, both Democrats and Republicans questioned the integrity of the election. Despite winning in the Electoral College, Donald Trump made unsubstantiated claims that the elections were characterized by widespread fraud that benefitted Hillary Clinton as his opponent (Hasen 636-637). Democrats, on the other hand, maintained that Trump’s team engaged in voter intimidation, which proved to be unsupported as well (Hasen 639). While dissatisfaction with presidential elections occurred at least as early as 2000, after George Bush’s controversial victory, the 2016 elections demonstrated that the issue became much more acute.
The situation repeats itself on an even greater magnitude in 2020. On the one hand, Trump refused to admit his loss and, currently, files suits intended to have election results overturned in several states (Gerhart and Remmel). On the other hand, even the Democratic senators, such as Elizabeth Warren, Ron Wyden, and Amy Klobuchar, expressed their concerns that Dominion Voting Systems used to count votes were unreliable and potentially possible to manipulate (Miller). These claims do not necessarily reflect the reality of the election process – it would be much better for American political system if they proved entirely false – but they reflect another profound issue: regardless of their political affiliations, American voters doubt their democracy.
To summarize, voting in American Democracy currently appears to be a failure rather than a success. History demonstrates that, despite legal enfranchisement, the reality of voting can be subject to many restrictive measures that severely undermine the principles of democracy. Moreover – and, arguable, more importantly – American voters begin doubting their political system and the integrity of their elections. Granted, having doubts and having proofs are different things, and it would be better for American democracy if the allegations of electoral fraud were completely false. Yet the sheer magnitude of these allegations is a significant issue in its own right. As of now, many American voters do not trust their elections, and if the political system fails to regain this trust, it may pave the way for the ultimate failure of American democracy. At the end of the day, the problem is as simple as this: democracy requires people’s trust in the voting process, which is lacking today – and, thus, American political institutions face what might be their most serious challenge of the last decades.
Epperly, Brad, et al. “Rule by Violence, Rule by Law: Lynching, Jim Crow, and the Continuing Evolution of Voter Suppression in the U.S.” Perspectives on Politics, vol. 18, no. 3, 2020, pp. 756-769.
Gerhart, Ann, and Tyler Remmel. “Election Results under Attack: Here Are the Facts.” The Washington Post, 2020.
Hasen, Richard L. “The 2016 Voting Wars: From Bad to Worse.” William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, vol. 26, no. 3, 2018, pp. 629-655.
Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. Basic Books, 2000.
Miller, Andrew Mark. “Democratic Senators Warned of Potential ‘Vote Switching’ by Dominion Voting Machines Prior to 2020 Election.” Washington Examiner, 2020.