One of the most notable weaknesses of American democracy is its system of voting. Claims of widespread fraud following the 2020 presidential election perpetrated by one of the candidates are just the tip of the iceberg concerning the erosion of democratic practices within the country. This decay has begun with a keystone of domestic politics: elections. Increased levels of polarization and lack of bipartisan cooperation have led to a deterioration of the democratic norm of institutional forbearance by the Republican party, which is visible through the party’s support and implementation of voter suppression policies.
Almost every definition of democracy, from Linz and Stepan to Dahl, highlights the crucial right to vote for governmental representatives, most effectively through free and fair elections. Over the past century, the United States has demonstrated a dedication to expanding and progressing this right to vote. Despite the importance placed upon this institution in the past, it has begun to take weakening blows over the last few decades; not in who can vote, but how they can vote. Modern voter suppression comes in many forms, both overt and covert. It is visible in American elections through acts of gerrymandering, the imposition of strict voter ID laws, restricting registration, or even teaching citizens how to legally challenge election administration; all tactics that have roots in exclusionary racial and gendered American politics that are being revamped for the modern day. A 2019-2021 report shows that the US is ranked 57th in the world for electoral integrity, making it in the bottom 50% of the 29 countries in the Americas. It’s clear that voter suppression is a deliberate political goal, one that seems to follow party lines, but the question remains: why?
The causal mechanisms for this degeneration of voting institutions can be attributed to unprecedented levels of polarization in American politics between Democrats and Republicans, and the lack of legislative bipartisan cooperation. We often see today that both parties work to appease their constituents, but are unable to successfully pass legislation without the other party’s cooperation, even with partial control of Congress. This has seemingly led to a new strategy, one that has potential to yield tangible results: voter suppression. The recent reliance of executive authority to enact party goals corroborates this assessment, indicating a lack of ability to create change through the customary channels of government. There is a new era of progress within American politics that evidently requires consolidation of power for significant change to occur.
Polarization has increased at the expense of traditional norms, namely that of institutional forbearance. Institutional forbearance, as explained by Levitsky and Ziblatt in their book How Democracies Die is the practice of “avoiding actions that may be technically legal, but violate spirit of the law.” A norm that they specify is especially important in presidential democracies, like the United States. The opposite of institutional forbearance, they explain, is called “constitutional hardball.” This practice is characterized by the goal of permanently defeating partisan rivals, without care for the future of democracy. It is this breakdown of norms that makes current bipartisan action difficult, and makes the system of checks and balances less effective. The use of voter suppression supported by the Republican party coming into the 2022 midterm elections embodies Levitsky and Ziblatt’s constitutional hardball strategy; a need to win positions of power immediately without regard for the safety for the democratic convention of free and fair elections.
Practices like strict voter ID laws, minimizing accessibility in terms of time or resources, and barriers to registration may all be technically legal, but directly violate the spirit of representative democracy seen in the US. Voter suppression across the country has been repeatedly proven to disproportionately target and harm communities of color, who, in the public’s perception, are likely to vote Democratically in elections. Strict ID laws are linked to lower turnout from students, people of color, and the elderly, which may have directly contributed to Trump’s win in Wisconsin in the 2016 presidential election. When exclusionary legislation like this begins to have wider implications for the integrity of American democracy, especially for vital positions of power like the presidency, we need to look at motive.
The perpetuation of voter suppression is undeniably deliberate along party lines, with an ex-GOP staffer testifying that Republican senators were “giddy” and “politically frothing at the mouth” at the passage of stricter ID laws. Republicans in Georgia oversaw the passing of SB202 in 2021 which makes early in-person voting, absentee voting, and using ballot drop boxes more difficult, restrictions which have been put in place under the guise of electoral integrity. Notable voting restrictions were also passed in Iowa, Montana, Arkansas, and Florida in 2021, many of which were countered with lawsuits based on their discriminatory nature. Since the beginning of 2021, 42 restrictive voting laws have been passed in 21 states, as opposed to the 19 laws passed in 12 states that expanded access to vote. There are numerous accounts of Republican-sponsored voting legislation, both proposed and passed, that work to disenfranchise American citizens. It is both the momentum behind this legislation and the power it can exert over the electoral process that is a cause for concern.
Voter suppression currently works to disenfranchise racial minorities, the poor, the young, the elderly and felons, but who is next? If institutional forbearance fully collapses, then we may all be within the next group without a right to vote, or without a democracy to participate in.