Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of democracy.
This belief is widely accepted by both academic political theorists and most U.S. citizens. However, a critical look at the 2016 election reveals increasing questionable election practices. Unfair election practices create governments rife with politicians who disenfranchise voters through poor representation. This post will examine four of the most relevant and concerning issues that have caused this decline of free and fair election practices in 2016: increasingly restrictive voter registration laws, entrenched incumbents, limitations based on voter characteristics, and rigged election rhetoric.
1.) Restrictive voter registration laws: The U.S. has a long history of discriminatory voter registration laws. One of the most well-known examples of this type of discrimination is the poll tax used in Southern states to disenfranchise poor black and white voters. In recent years, there has been a new wave of voter registration laws and barriers that block individuals from making it to the polls. These laws are particularly prone to abuse. For example, in New York, a state with some of the most restrictive voting laws, only 8% of the eligible population makes it to the polls. These laws are criticized for disproportionality affecting minority voters because minority groups often do not have the correct identification that their state requires. The individuals either cannot afford or simply cannot obtain the correct papers. The ACLU cites voter identification laws as an intentional way to bar disproportionality low-income, racial minorities from the polls. Truly democratic participation cannot exclude individuals from voting based on the stipulation that formal documents must be obtained that lie beyond the reach of many citizens. Statistically, 11% of Americans do not have a government issued I.D. Broken down further by race, up to 25% of African Americans of voting age do not have the necessary identification to vote, compared to 8% of whites. Incumbents have little incentive to fight against increasingly restrictive laws since they gift them with predicable voting pools, thus further securing their seats. Unethical voter registration laws were particularly pertinent during the 2016 election because it was the first presidential election since the Supreme Court ruled to invalidate certain key aspects of the Voting Rights Act of 1985.
2.) Entrenched Incumbents: Democracy consists of three associated institutions, one of which is an electorate system where the losing side cedes power when it is defeated. As one political theorist put it: Democracy is “a system in which parties lose elections.” However, due to an increasingly partisan manipulation of voting blocks, called gerrymandering, this is no longer the case. Gerrymandering is the drawing of electoral districts in such a way as to give advantage to one party over the other, causing the partisan races to be less competitive. In the 2016 election for the House of Representatives, the winning margin of victory was 37.1%, a percentage extremely low for a country such as the United States. Furthermore, there were competitive races for Congress in only 8 out of the 50 states. What does this mean for fair elections? Even if a representative’s constituents vote him or her out of office with a majority, there is no guarantee that the representative will lose the race and therefore cede power. During the 2016 election, incumbents whose time in office had expired remained in office, and therefore failed to cede power.
3.) Limitations based on voter characteristics: A widespread ability to vote in democratic elections, that is not restricted by cultural or biological factors, is a stipulation of free and fair elections. In other words, virtually all adults should have the right to vote. Furthermore, the ability to vote should not systematically disadvantage a certain group, thus limiting them based on particular characteristics. However, this does not seem to be the case in the U.S. and has not been the case for quite some time. One increasingly pertinent example of these limitations is the growing number of disenfranchised black male felons. This group makes up 35% of all Americans blocked from voting due to felony charges. Although crime rates are dropping, prison populations are increasing, as are sentencing lengths, particularly for drug-related charges, which disproportionately affect black males. As a result, the numbers of barred black male felons continue to sky rocket. This trend has been coined the “New Jim Crow” by law professor and best-selling author, Michelle Alexander. In the 2016 election, 1.4 million black men of voting age were barred from the polls due to their felony convictions, a practice that specifically, and increasingly, restricts voters based on certain characteristics.
4.) Propagation of rigged election rhetoric: It is extremely important that voters believe democracy works in order for democracy to survive. However, during the 2016 election, Donald Trump created the perception that the integrity of the election process was completely compromised. Trump claimed that individuals who had died ten years ago were still able to vote along with millions of illegal immigrants. One of Trump’s tweets reads: “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Trump’s tweet demonstrates his commitment to the ideal that U.S. elections are rigged and voters cannot be trusted. After the election, Trump created a Commission on Voter Fraud in order to investigate the suspected deceit. Another tweet from Trump concerning his commission states: “Many mostly Democrat States refused to hand over data from the 2016 Election to the Commission On Voter Fraud. They fought hard that the Commission not see their records or methods because they know that many people are voting illegally. System is rigged, must go to Voter I.D.” The commission was later shut down after the investigators asked Texas to flag voters with a Hispanic surname. Not only has Trump’s rhetoric propagated the idea of a rigged election, but the deceit is clearly blamed on a certain group of individuals. The distrust of free and fair elections by a powerful leader works to further delegitimize this crucial democratic practice.
The 2016 election unveiled troubling changes in the freeness and fairness of U.S. democratic elections. Due to increasingly restrictive voter registration laws, entrenched incumbents, limitations based on voter characteristics, and rigged election rhetoric, one of the most revered cornerstones of democracy is eroding. The U.S. election system requires formidable legal and political changes if the 2020 presidential election is to be more democratic than the last.
“Photo by Daniel Nussbaum, “Frederic J. Brown ” (AFP), Getty.”