Observations of an Expat: Free and Fair Elections in America

America believes in exporting its Democracy. And it has sought to do so right from the start. Congress regularly ties aid and trade packages to political change in developing countries, too often ignoring local conditions.

For many years America was seen by other countries as that “Shining City on the Hill” first mentioned in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and later repeated by Puritan leader John Winthrop and, more recently, by President Ronald Reagan.

Its War of Independence inspired the French Revolution, liberation movements in South America and elsewhere in the world. The stirring words of the Declaration of Independence are mirrored in similar documents across the globe.

But changes in American electoral politics means that the rest of the world is now questioning America’s claim to the moral high ground, and those questions undermine the success and stability of democracy elsewhere in the world.

There were two catalysts for the current dilemma. The first was the historically high voter turnout in the 2020 elections—74 percent of the electorate. Because of shifting demographics, these worked in favour of ethnic communities who normally vote Democratic. This convinced conservative Republicans that if they are going to gain and retain power, they have to find ways of restricting the ethnic vote.

The next one was Donald Trump’s refusal to accept the result of the election. A gracious and civilised concession is an essential element in the democratic process. Trump’s insistence that he is a victim of electoral fraud undermines the democratic process and the Biden Administration, and enables him to attempt to establish an opposing “legitimate” power base. Trump’s lies have also created perceived doubts about the fairness of the system. This has enabled Republican lawmakers to push through their changes to the voting system.

So, what has been the reaction to these catalysts. Well for a start there was the attack on Capitol Hill which has introduced a frighteningly violent core into conservative ranks. Then there has been a move by mainly Republican (and some Democrat) legislatures to restrict voting rights in their respective states. It is being done at state level because under the constitution the states set the rules in their state. Article 1, Section 4, Clause 1 reads:

“The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of choosing Senators.”

This is the main reason the Supreme Court recently ruled against efforts to block restrictive voting rights. It was not necessarily in favour of the restrictions. It was just prevented by the constitution from stopping the states unless the restrictions were specifically aimed at an ethnic group in which the 1964 Voting Rights Act could be enforced.

Democrats in Congress tried to block the states (as per the constitution), but they ran afoul of the filibuster. As a result, states can now limit drive-in voting, postal ballots, siting of polling stations, size of polling districts, voting hours etcetera. And they are doing it, and in almost every case it is at the expense of the ethnic/Democratic voters.

More worrying than the voting restrictions is the rights that Republican state legislatures are giving themselves to materially affect or even overturn an election result which they don’t like. In key battleground state Arizona, Republican legislators have introduced a bill that allows the legislature to appoint electors to the Electoral College if they don’t like the result provided by the voters.

In Georgia, another battleground state, the legislature has stripped Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger of many of his electoral oversight powers. He won the undying hatred of Republicans when he refused Trump’s plea to “find” him 17,000 votes in the Peach State. Georgia’s example is being followed by several other Republican-controlled states.

Georgia’s state legislature can now also replace the leadership of county election boards and in Texas they will no longer need to show that improper votes affected the outcome of an election to seek to reverse the results.

Recently a group of 200 prominent American political scientist signed a letter warning that changes in state laws “are transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections.”

The end of the Cold War was a triumph of democracy over authoritarianism. The following two decades saw a flowering of democratic governments in areas such as South America and Eastern Europe. Countries in those regions saw success and wanted a slice of the rewards it brought.

Now, however, third counties have the economic success of authoritarian China to compare against American democracy. The Chinese claim that their one-party system is more efficient, less divisive and better able to deliver the economic rewards than the multi-party American democracy. At the same time, it appears to many that the Chinese one-party example is being pursued by sections of the Republican Party who seem more intent on power than the protection of democracy.

* Tom Arms is the Foreign Editor of Liberal Democratic Voice. His book “America Made in Britain” has recently been published by Amberley Books. He is also the author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War.”

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  • John Marriott 10th Jul '21 - 9:39am

    You can start in 1812 when Governor Gerry of Massachusetts signed into law a bill to manipulate a district in his patch which gave birth to gerrymandering which has been developed into a fine art over the pond. I believe that some areas are so biased that opposition parties do not even enter any candidates.

    As far as the states are concerned, it must surely be time to scrap ‘two senators per state’. It’s crazy that a state such as Wyoming, with a population of around half a million has the same number of senators as, for example, California, with a population of nearly forty million. Then, why have congressional elections every two years? Granted only around half the seats are up for grabs in Congress; but surely it would be better if they were all to take place every four years.

    The Republican Party is quite clear what it is attempting to do. It knows that, with changing demographics, it is likely to become a party of the minority, possibly, if it isn’t already. That’s why it is trying to compress the franchise, just as the Tories over here, the ‘minority’ party par excellence, clings to FPTP. To be brutally honest, both parties, in their pursuit of power at all costs, are the real threats to democracy.

  • Brad Barrows 10th Jul '21 - 10:30am

    @John Marriott
    I disagree with your views regarding the two senators per state. The whole point is that the USA is a federation of otherwise sovereign states that have chosen to pool their sovereignty. Each state gets 2 senators regardless of population in the same way that in Australia, each state gets 12 senators regardless of population. Of course, the American Civil War changed the nature of the USA by making establishing that the sovereignty of the individual states did not extend to the right to secede from the Union, but the States remain the fundamental building blocks of the country and this continues to be recognised by them having equal representation in the Senate.

  • Laurence Cox 10th Jul '21 - 11:20am

    @John Marriott
    The reasoning behind two senators per state goes all the way back to the founding of the Republic when small states (e.g. Rhode Island, Delaware) were afraid that large states (e.g. New York) would dominate the new Republic. There is an argument for change, but it is not to the Senators, but instead to the Representatives. The number of voting Representatives is fixed by law at 435, but as each state must have a minimum of one voting Representative (there are seven of these: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming) the constituencies in states like California have larger populations than those of the least-populated states. We need to remember that even the latest constituency boundaries in the UK allow for 4 exceptions to the 5% rule (the Western Isles, Orkney & Shetland, Ynys Mon, and the Isle of Wight) so the one Representative per state requirement is not unreasonable, but the USA could minimise its effect by increasing the total number of Representatives.

  • Brad Barrows: The fact that a state cannot secede from the Union makes their sovereignty a fiction. The Senate is like the pre 1911 House of Lords – an undemocratic body maintained to keep the conservative elements in power. At one time Senators were elected by the State legislatures which might have provided some legitimacy without the need to have 2 for each State.

  • John Marriott 10th Jul ’21 – 9:39am:
    You can start in 1812 when Governor Gerry of Massachusetts signed into law a bill to manipulate a district in his patch which gave birth to gerrymandering…

    Such that it took on the shape of a salamander.

    …just as the Tories over here, the ‘minority’ party par excellence, clings to FPTP.

    They just support the system that a large majority of the electorate decided by referendum to retain. I don’t think many people will want to go back to the chaos of the 2017 parliament anytime soon.

    To be brutally honest, both parties, in their pursuit of power at all costs, are the real threats to democracy.

    Far from being a ‘threat’ to democracy, over the last five years the Conservatives have been the only parliamentary party inclined to uphold our democracy by implementing the people’s decision to leave the EU. This despite originally advocating a contrary outcome and considerable opposition not least from within their own MPs and a previous Prime Minister seemingly installed to sabotage its implementation. For that the current government deserves much credit. Some people need to stop and think what would have happened had we not regained our independence. Our democracy would have been at an end; voting completely pointless. The EU would have walked all over us, knowing that we didn’t have the bottle to carry out our decision to leave. The threat to our democracy in recent years has come from those who sought to subvert and frustrate that decision.

  • John Marriott 10th Jul '21 - 1:17pm

    The AV referendum was a shambles, undermined largely by some dirty tricks from the Tories and the pitiful campaign waged by the Yes campaign. In any case it wasn’t really PR.

    As for the ‘people’s decision to leave the EU’, who were ‘the people’ and what percentage of the U.K. population did they represent?

    The ‘chaos of the 2017 Parliament’ could have been avoided if the opposition parties, representing over 50% of the potential electorate, could have got their collective act together. They didn’t, got suckered into another General Election (so why abolish the FTPA?) and paid the price.

    ‘Gerry’s salamander’. Yes, I knew that, of course.

    @Brad Barrows @Laurence Cox
    The US Constitution is well over two hundred years old and it shows it. It was designed for a different age, when the US consisted of a few colonies on the Eastern Seaboard. Just like our ‘constitution’, it’s in need of a rethink.

  • While it is true there the US constitution does not provide for secession of a state, it is not generally a matter determined by legal ruling. Had the Confederacy won, any illegality of its actions under U.S. law would have been rendered irrelevant, just as the illegality of American rebellion under British law of 1775 was rendered irrelevant. The Republic of Texas was recognised Internationally as an independent nation before it became a US state despite Mexico’s legal objections. When it was annexed by the USA the Mexican-American war of 1846 broke out. Had Mexico prevailed, Texas would have returned to Mexico. Taiwan is Internationally recognised as an Independent political entity, but not by China,
    The Hawaiian sovereignty movement seeks to restore the Kingdom of Hawaii that was recognised prior to the overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani in 1893. The Apology Resolution passed by the United States Congress in 1993 acknowledged that the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893 was an illegal act.
    Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian Wars devotes a full chapter to the detailed legalistic language of “The Peace of Nicias.” The Peace of Nicias was not at all satisfactory, involving frequent confrontations between proxies of Athens and Sparta and occasional battles between Athenian and Spartan forces. When, five years into that period of tension, the people of Melos tried to break their alliance with Athens, the Athenians sent envoys to hear the Melians’ case. The Melians appealed to justice and to the legal principles encoded in the treaties of the Peace of Nicias. The Athenians responded that “The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.” When the Melians appealed to notions of legality, the Athenians responded that these obtain among equals, while in cases where one party is far stronger, the other must submit and make the best of submission.
    It is the ability to project military and economic power that ultimately determines the hegemony of nation states, rather than claims to the moral high ground, legal or otherwise. As Chinese economic strength rises the influence of the USA and western democracy will be tested across the globe.

  • I didn’t have space in this week’s observations to raise a point which has been troubling me. It is that in the past political parties have altered their policies to win votes from a changing electoral demographic. Why are they not doing that now? Why are the parties, especially those that are conservatively-oriented doubling down and turning towards undemocratic measures to win elections?

  • Brad Barrows 10th Jul '21 - 5:54pm

    You raise an interesting question that is based on the assumption that changing demographics will work against the Republicans. I’m not convinced by this – there is growing evidence that support for the Republican Party is increasing in the Hispanic community, both linked to the length of time they or their families have been in the USA, and also linked to the higher rate of Catholic faith within the Hispanic community. In any case, as ‘values’ politics grows in importance, you can not expect activists to be willing to compromise what they believe in – they would prefer to campaign and persuade rather than compromise.

  • Peter Hirst 17th Jul '21 - 2:56pm

    Perhaps to fair and free elections should be added that of inclusivity. Above a certain age the aim should be universality of voting except in exceptional circumstances. Ease of voting is an essential part of this.

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