As the election season comes into full swing, Trump and the GOP, have become noticeably worried about the outcome of this election year – especially as the means of voting has become more accessible. As a result of this anxiety, Trump and the GOP have begun to take measures that approach on being undemocratic. One such of these paradoxically democratic-yet-undemocratic practices have sprung up in a Democratic stronghold – California.
On the weekend of October 10th, the California Secretary of State’s office and multiple County Registrars’ offices received reports of suspicious ballot drop boxes appearing in at least three counties in Southern California. According to Los Angeles Country, these ballot drop boxes are part of the Vote by Mail Ballot Drop Box Program, an initiative starting in 2007 that provides voters with a secure alternative option for returning their ballot. The installation of these ballot boxes by the GOP, according to state officials, are unauthorized. Some of these boxes are even labelled as “official,” creating chaos in an already tumultuous election year. According to the California GOP, these ballot boxes are permitted because of current California laws on ballot harvesting. Ballot harvesting involves a law where third-parties are able to collect and deliver ballots in some states such as California. Therefore, they argue, these installed ballot boxes should be used and counted for in the upcoming, already hotly contested, election. Because of these factors, the California Secretary of State, Alex Padilla, and Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, have sent a cease and desist order to the California Republican Party for their unauthorized use of poll boxes.
On Monday October 12th, 2020 the California GOP refused to listen to California’s Secretary of State’s nor Attorney General’s Cease and Desist orders for the unauthorized use of poll collection boxes. The GOP Officials argue that they are not breaking California law using rhetoric very similar to the Democratic parties. That is, “[the GOP will] not allow the Secretary of State [opposition party] to suppress the vote.”
This seemingly pro-democratic rhetoric seems like the GOP is attempting to bolster democratic norms through the election. In the Dahlian conception of democracy, elections are only one marker of many researchers use to measure quality of democracy.[i] Other such markers include: Freedom to form and join organizations; Freedom of expression; Right to vote; Eligibility for public office; Right of political leaders to compete for support and votes; Alternative sources of information; Free and fair elections; Institutions for making government policies depend on votes and other expressions of preference.[ii] In the Dahlian notion of Democracy, one marker that stands out in light of what is happening in Southern California is the ambiguity of fair elections. The reason this marker stands out is because, in the age of Trumpism, the democratic process of elections has started to erode considerably faster especially as we come closer to the election date.
Currently in Southern California, we are seeing a contestation in the means of voting and the process of voting itself with the GOP’s ballot strategy. In a Democrat stronghold like California, the GOP are using rhetorical strategies to ensure that their constituents continue to believe that the Democrat controlled state is untrustworthy and therefore creating an ambiguous voting process that has no formal transparency. Ultimately, this presents a problem – how do we know that these votes are valid and not manipulated by the California GOP in some manner?
This question can be helped through two pieces of work, (1) Ginsburg and Huq’s book How to Save a Constitutional Democracy [iii] (2) Ozan Varol’s article Stealth Authoritarianism [iv] I will focus on the former then the latter to shine a light on the political processes happening in US politics. In How to Save a Constitutional Democracy, the authors articulate six structural weaknesses in the American Constitution that render the US vulnerable to democratic erosion. One of such weaknesses is currently at play in Southern California is the shrinking of the public sphere. In this point, Ginsburg and Huq argue that the epistemic environment of political institutions is essentially controlled by the state and therefore can be used in the process of democratic erosion.[v] Although their example is discussing the availability of information like the news, I argue that this can be extended to other types cleavages of information in society by Political entities such as the control of these ballot boxes.
Vis-à-vis California GOP and democratic erosion, the privatization of public voting has a tremendous effect on the epistemic properties of the vote itself. The ballot voting process in California has strict rules that State and local officials must follow, such as an official watching the ballot box, in order that the public has epistemic assurance that their vote will not be manipulated. Because there is no transparency nor accountability in the GOP’s private voting processes, e.g. the unofficial ballot boxes, the GOP is contesting the epistemic foundation that is needed for the functioning of liberal democracies such as the United States. These ballot boxes according to the Secretary of State and Attorney do not and could not follow the same regulations.
With this democratic-yet-undemocratic process articulated, we must consider how this might be a configuration of Stealth Authoritarianism as Ozan Varol has coined. Varol suggests, in his article Stealth Authoritarianism, that “[this new mean of] authoritarianism erodes mechanism of accountability, weakens horizontal and vertical check and balances.”[vi] Southern California has witnessed a weakening of accountability mechanisms in voting last week. Despite the GOP being a political organization, they are using their main constituents as bases to create their own private means of collection. This is something that Varol warns about in his article. Varol views that the manipulation of electoral laws can be a means for democratic erosion.[vii]To me, the California GOP’s private means of voting is effectively flouting the rules and regulation put in place to increase accountability of the state’s voting process. Even if California is perceived as a Democrat stronghold to many, there are still individuals willing to use to anti-democratic mean for their political objectives. It is important that there is public accountability in the actions of the California GOP so that the United States’ democracy can be maintained. Ultimately, we must consider the consequences of their actions in relation to the future of the United States’ and its democracy.
[i] Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1.
[iii] Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Z. Huq, How to Save a Constitutional Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018). 155-160.
[iv] Ozan Varol. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (2014): 1673–1742.
[v] Ginsburg and Huq. 158.
[vi] Varol. 1684
[vii] Varol. 1700.