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Under Discussion: Consent of the Governed? Obstacles to Free and Fair Elections

photograph of an "I tried to vote today" sticker

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Democracy’s Demands.

Addressing the House of Commons in 1947, Winston Churchill famously said, “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” It is not difficult to identify problems with democracy. Citizens aren’t always well informed on critical issues, so they sometimes vote in large numbers for disastrous policies and candidates. Sometimes substantial groups of people hold positions on moral issues that harm other people or violate their basic human rights. Democracy doesn’t ensure just outcomes, so it isn’t always perfect. On the other hand, democratic institutions are essential for grounding the authority and legitimacy of government. It is only when all citizens can vote in free and fair elections that government functions with the consent of the governed. Respect for democratic processes is also critical for keeping the peace among competing factions. Governments that honor democratic traditions have ways of preventing disagreements among political groups from being resolved violently.

Democracies that stifle the ability to vote or that seek to minimize the extent to which one person’s vote counts as much as any other person’s are democracies in name only. True democracies are respectful of the equal moral worth of all persons. Organizations like the National Democratic Institute and the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division have worked tirelessly to observe elections worldwide to support and strengthen democratic institutions. The hope is that their presence will contribute to elections that are fair so that authoritarian regimes are not painted with a veneer of legitimacy.

We don’t have to look abroad for examples of interference with the free functioning of democracy. If democracies respect the equal moral worth of all persons, and if government is only legitimate if it has the consent of the governed, then the early system of government in the United States was not a true democracy, since the federal government left decisions regarding who could vote up to the states. The states routinely disenfranchised women and Black people. It took constitutional amendments to change that. Even after these amendments were passed, states still had the power to pass laws regarding voting. Many states enacted poll taxes and literacy tests as prerequisites for voting. They knew that this would serve as a practical way of preventing Black people from exercising their voting rights.

We don’t have to look to history to find examples of democracy being thwarted and undermined. Our current legislators, motivated by winning elections, making money, and holding onto power, engage in all sorts of tactics to see to it that only the votes of their supporters are counted.

One of the primary methods of misrepresenting the will of the people is gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing voting district lines in unnatural ways. So, for example, if members of political group A live in the city and members of political group B are drawing the districts, group B may draw the districts in such a way that any one of them captures only part of the city voters but plenty of the voters in the suburbs and rural areas, diluting the voting power of political group A. Gerrymandered districts don’t reflect the will of the people. They misrepresent the political preferences of specific communities.

Democracy is also undermined when some citizens are taxed, and yet have either no representation in Congress or fail to have proportional representation. The United States fails this test when it comes to Puerto Rico, Guam, and the District of Columbia — places populated by voting taxpayers that do not have representation in Congress. What’s more, all states have the same number of senators, regardless of their respective populations. The state of California has a population of 39.51 million people. It has two senators. The state of Wyoming has a population of 580, 000. It also has two senators. As a result, the residents of the state of Wyoming have significantly more proportional voting power than the citizens of California.

The number of representatives in the House that each state has depends on their population. The population is studied and recorded by the census, which is a survey of households conducted every ten years. For a democratic system to be free and fair, no undue burdens or significant obstacles should be placed in the way of the opportunity that each household has to fill out their census report. This year, the Commerce Department warned that completing the census on time would not be possible because of the constraints caused by the pandemic. They requested an extension. The Trump administration did not comply with this request, arguing that the data must move to the analysis phase. Not only did the administration not extend the deadline, they actually moved the deadline up. This week, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Trump administration. This means that the administration will have its hand in apportionment of representatives to the House, even if Trump loses the election. Civil rights groups such as the National Urban League have argued that this decision is likely to harm already disadvantaged communities.

Another significant obstacle in the path to free and fair elections is voter suppression — the practice of preventing voters from certain demographics from voting. Poll taxes and literacy tests were forms of voter suppression in our country’s early history, but those kinds of tactics have not been relegated to a bygone era. In the age of coronavirus, voters are concerned that their mail-in votes will not be counted. Nevertheless, many elected officials across the country have arbitrarily limited the number of drop-off ballot locations. For example, in Texas, republican Governor Greg Abbott issued an order to shut down dozens of ballot drop-off sites weeks before the election, opting instead for a policy that provides one drop-off site for every county, regardless of its population. The result is that Harris County, which has a population of more than 4.7 million people, has the same number of ballot drop-off boxes — one — as Rockwell County, with a population of 88 thousand. A federal appeals court recently upheld Governor Abbott’s order.

The political voices of individual human beings with interests and moral worth should be the central building blocks of democratic decision making. This isn’t possible when the interests of powerful corporations end up dwarfing the voices of the people. The Supreme Court’s opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which maintained that corporations are people with free speech rights that can be exercised through unlimited donations to political campaigns, made the United States a substantially less democratic country. In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens argued that the majority decision constituted a “rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government.”

Finally, free and fair democratic elections are undermined by lies, threats, and the intentional mass spread of misinformation. For example, President Trump has repeatedly claimed that mail-in voting will result in massive amounts of voter fraud. He blasts this message through his significant political megaphone even though there is no evidence to believe that it is true and plenty of evidence to believe that it is false. The Trump campaign is also gathering an “army” of poll watchers to go to the polls on election day, raising concerns about a chilling effect on voter participation and the possibility of voter intimidation at the polls.

The National Democratic Institute raises red flags for elections that present as democratic, but that don’t actually operate in ways that respect the will of the people. Perhaps they should keep an eye on our elections here in the United States.

Considered Position: Flawed Democracy – Disenfranchisement

photograph of street traffic leading up to US Capitol building

This piece begins a Considered Position series that reflects on the United States’ claim to being a “flawed democracy.” (Part II, Part III, Part IV)

Introduction

2020 is an election year. As a nation, we will talk a lot about the candidates, who they are, what they stand for, and what they plan to do. But how much does that all matter if the elections themselves are broken?

As Americans we pride ourselves on our commitment to democracy. While most nations were still under monarchs, we alone managed to permanently throw off the monarchical yoke. But how democratic are we really? As this series will discuss, our government has earned its designation as a “flawed democracy.”

We will consider numerous problems of enfranchisement, minority rights, and voter participation. We will also consider how all these problems have not necessarily come from malice or stupidity. Unfortunately, it is very easy for many people, all individually rational and good-hearted, to exact great harm on our society and government.

Unlike most writing on politics, this series will not seek primarily to put blame on any group or groups. Rather, we will try to understand the systems that have incentivized people to act in ways contrary to the general interest. As much as we as Americans like to think of ourselves as free, no one is free from the influences society has on us from birth till death in all our actions.

Frequently we will consider these systems and problems through a moral lens. Most political problems and disagreements have their roots in moral disagreements. And, the Prindle Institute for Ethics holds that the only way to become better at resolving moral disagreements is to develop the skills of moral reasoning. Moral reasoning is the practice of considering a moral problem from different perspectives, weighing the different moral factors at stake, and coming to an understanding of the right action or actions to take.

You might want to put on some cheerful music as this discussion of the numerous systemic problems with our electoral system is almost certain to prompt feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Got it playing? Well then, strap in as we first take a look at one of the most obvious problems with our democracy: the fact that millions of US citizens have, like American Revolutionaries once did, no representation in the governing bodies whose laws they must obey.

Disenfranchisement

If you’re a citizen, if you were born in this country, if you are mentally sound, and if you have committed no crimes, then you likely have the right to vote for the president and members of Congress as soon as you turn 18. But it is only likely. It is not guaranteed. In fact, about 4 million Americans who fit all these criteria cannot vote. That’s more people than who live in the five least populous states. So why can these people not vote? Well, they don’t live in US states. Most of them live in US territories and the remaining 700,000 reside in our nation’s capital. Let us consider both of these groups in turn.

Island Territories

Most people know about Puerto Rico. It is part of the US and yet not a state, even though it has more people (3.7 million) than 20 US states. But many do not know that an additional 300,000 people live in Guam, the US Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa. American Samoans aren’t even considered citizens, only “American nationals,” though there is a court case pending challenging this classification. The reason these citizens have been denied voting rights goes back to a series of Supreme Court cases and decisions collectively referred to as the “Insular cases.”

These cases, decided in 1901, were rooted in racism and colonialism. The Court ruled that the US could possess these territories without granting their residents full constitutional rights. According to them, “those possessions are inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought,” and so “the administration of government and justice according to Anglo-Saxon principles may for a time be impossible.” The designation of American Samoans as “nationals” rather than “citizens” reflects the colonial mindset. European nations often used this designation for their own colonial subjects.

Given that colonialism often has the purpose of creating military advantage and extracting economic resources for the colonizers, it makes sense why the US would not want the colonized people to have a vote. But, of course, nowadays that line of reasoning will not convince many people. We recognized now that these people are people. So why, in our “democratic” nations does this demos, Greek for “people,” not get to vote?

It comes down to a matter of constitutional law. According to the Constitution, Senators and House Representatives must be elected by the people of the States. Each state gets 2 Senators and a number of Representatives based on its population. Statehood here is critical. Any of the territories could become a state. However, statehood requires the same approval as do laws when they are passed. Both Houses and the president must agree. This will be difficult to accomplish for any territory that wishes to become a state and it always has been. Some of the most divisive politics of our nation’s history surrounded the admission of various states during the antebellum period. Few slave-holding states would be willing to vote in favor of admitting a free state and vice versa. Thus, the democratic rights of these citizens are dependent on two parties agreeing which, in recent times, agree on little.

It’s a hard sell for Republicans and for good reason: suppose you had power to make change for (what you believed to be) the better. Would you be willing to give up that potential for good just to give the right to vote to some people you know will vote (in what you believe to be) the wrong way? Denying the democratic rights of others, then, is not necessarily irrational and requires no malice towards those you disenfranchise. If you have confidence in your beliefs (which you must to hold them at all), then it makes little sense to give decision-making power to those who hold beliefs opposite yours. The issue comes down to deciding whether to preference your specific political beliefs or your broader political beliefs about the righteousness of a democratic system of government.

And there are some other legitimate worries too. First among these is a worry stemming from democratic values: Puerto Rico and other territories should only be made states if their peoples want to become states and it’s not clear that they do. Puerto Rico has regularly had referenda on statehood but no referendum has ever shown definitive public support for statehood. The latest referendum showed 97 percent of Puerto Ricans supporting statehood. However, there was only 23 percent turnout after the anti-statehood Popular Democratic Party urged people to boycott the vote. Former Governor of Puerto Rico Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, a member of this party, sees a number of economic and cultural problems with gaining statehood.

Another referendum is on the 2020 ballot. So we will soon see if the people of Puerto really agree with Vilá. If Puerto Ricans do not support statehood, it is hard to argue that they should be made one. The stance many politicians take, including current Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden, is neither that Puerto Rico should be a state nor that it shouldn’t, but that the people of Puerto Rico should decide for themselves.

There are probably a few Americans who want to keep the historical colonial relationship we have with Puerto Rico and the other island territories, but it’s not clear that this is the reasoning driving most of those who oppose Puerto Rican statehood. On the far opposite side to those who would treat Puerto Rico as a colony are those who advocate its self-determination. The UN Special Committee on Decolonization has long demanded that Puerto Rico be allowed to be either a state or an independent nation. Most colonies, historically, have pursued independence rather than integration with the colonizing state. In fact, in 1914, Puerto Rico’s own elected Congress voted overwhelmingly for independence and was subsequently ignored.

The District of Columbia

So maybe the island territories shouldn’t have the vote. Perhaps they don’t want it. But what about somewhere that does? The District of Columbia is our nation’s capital, but it’s also a city of more than 700,000 people, none of whom have Congressional representation. In fact, while they can vote for President, they can only do so because of an amendment to the Constitution passed in 1961. And though this amendment gives them the right to vote, their votes only count as much as the least populous state, giving them 3 electoral votes, the same number as Alaska, a state with one third the population of DC.

Why didn’t the Founders give them this right in the original Constitution? Well, no one was meant to live there besides some members of the government and some support staff. Furthermore, the Founders worried that having the nation’s capital in a state would allow that state undue influence over the federal government. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist 43, they worried about “a dependence of the members of the general government on the State comprehending the seat of the government” and the possibility of a state bringing “on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence.”

Even so, neither Madison nor any other of the Founders could have predicted the incredible population growth that was to come in the next two centuries. So perhaps their attitudes would have softened. Indeed, one of the slogans of the American Revolution was “taxation without representation” and this same slogan now adorns all the license plates of DC residents. DC residents pay more federal income tax per person than any other state and yet have no representation in Congress. This injustice is compounded by the fact that Congress has total dominion over DC. As part of a federal system, states have powers that Congress and the federal government cannot override. DC has no such power of self-determination. Though they can pass laws and ordinances, they can all be vetoed by Congress.

DC is an interesting case because proponents on both sides, of statehood and of the status quo, claim to be upholding basic principles of democracy. On the one hand, those who support statehood want the most basic form of democracy for DC, the right to vote and the right to self-determination. On the other hand, those who oppose it believe in the concept of “one man, one vote.” They don’t want citizens of DC to have more than their share of power over the federal government. Proponents of statehood see the issue as a dichotomy between giving DC citizens equal rights and leaving them with no rights. Opponents see it differently: either DC has no political power or they have more than other citizens for an arbitrary reason, their geographic location. Seen that way, statehood becomes a much more tangled issue.

However, not all opponents of giving DC’s citizens political rights have such defensible positions. First of all, like Puerto Rico, DC would be likely to bring more Democratic Senators and Representatives to Congress since they vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party in presidential elections. In fact, this was the reason Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave for refusing to consider DC statehood, likening the increase in the number of Democratic Senators incoherently to “full-bore socialism.”

And, again like Puerto Rico, some opposition to DC’s citizens having political rights stems from racism; Black people represent the majority of DC’s population. In fact, a number of the arguments Republican Congressmen presented in the House to oppose DC statehood did not concern the worry of Madison about state influence on the federal government at all. Rather, Republican Congressmen mostly made arguments about the largely Black city being unable to govern itself. They referenced the city’s crime rates, public school quality, and governmental corruption. These might be valid concerns if any other state with the same issues were similarly threatened with disenfranchisement. But, of course, they are not. And in any case, the question remains why any of those factors ought to affect people’s fundamental right to representation in government.

The genuineness of these concerns is also cast into doubt by the fact that they fit into a pattern of racially motivated reasoning used to support the disenfranchisement of DC’s residents. During Reconstruction, John Tyler Morgan, a former Confederate soldier and then US Senator argued that Congress had “to burn down the barn to get rid of the rats…the rats being the negro population and the barn being the government of the District of Columbia.” The legislation he supported — removing power that had been given to the city — was soon passed.

Even if racism does play a part in motivating opponents of DC’s statehood, they may still be right. People can argue the right things for the wrong reasons. Australia for one is also a federated state and also has its capital in a distinct territory, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), that does not have the same full rights of self-determination as do the other states. We are not a lone oddity in not wanting the people immediately around the capital to have undue power over the federal government. Unlike the US, however, the people of the ACT do have representation in their legislature. At the same time, that representation is very limited and is not proportional to the population. They have more people but fewer representatives than the state of Tasmania. This situation is similar to DC’s limited power in the Electoral College like I mentioned before.

The opposition surrounding DC’s statehood is a tangled mess of racist rhetoric and legitimate concerns that come with a federal style of government. Its supporters and opponents both base their arguments in democratic language. The same goes for Puerto Rico and the other island territories where everyone agrees that what the people say goes, only they disagree on what the people say. Therefore, excepting the racism that underpins some arguments against enfranchisement in both of these areas (and there is a lot of this), the debate is not between those who support democracy and those who don’t. Rather, it is between people with different interpretations of democracy.

Continue to Part II

On the Question of Strategic Voting

photograph of "voting" sign on a wall

On October 21st Canada elected a new parliament. In this election the issue of strategic voting became prominent. There were six political parties considered to be capable of electing members to parliament. Three of those parties are commonly grouped as “progressive,” including the Liberal Party who won a plurality of seats in the election, the center-left New Democratic Party (NDP), and the environmentally focussed Green Party. Because of this competition voters had to weigh the option of voting for the party that is their first choice or strategically voting for a party that is less favored but more likely to win in order to avoid victory for a party that is more strongly opposed. This tactic has been discussed and debated amongst those in the media and in the academy. Strategic voting is an ethical issue because it can affect the quality of democracy, however even the language used to discuss the issue reveals something about how we make value judgments.

In Canada certain electoral ridings tend to be traded back and forth between the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. If a voter prefers the NDP, for example, they are confronted with a choice: They can vote according to preference, even though it may be very unlikely those candidates will win, or they might decide to vote tactically. While they may not prefer the Liberal candidate to win, they may want the Conservative candidate to win even less; the voter may then strategically switch their vote for the Liberal Party in order to avoid a Conservative victory. The effect is that the vote share that would normally go to the NDP or the Green Party is suppressed.

This phenomenon is not foreign to American voters. Political scientist Gar Culbart has analyzed data from four presidential elections and found evidence that primary voters tend to select candidates more likely to win the Presidential election, rather than their first-choice preference. But strategic voting can apply past the nomination stage as well. In the last Presidential election left-leaning voters (particularly Sanders supporters) had to face a difficult decision between not voting at all, voting for a third-party candidate like Jill Stein, or, despite not liking her candidacy, voting for Hilary Clinton in order to prevent a Trump victory.

The issue of strategic voting has become a controversial topic. One the one hand, if a voter wishes to prevent a certain candidate from winning, and this is more important to them than voting for their first-choice candidate, it seems like a sincere preference and for some voicing it may be considered to be a moral obligation. Pundits like Bill Maher have been fiercely critical of those who do not vote strategically. Drawing attention to issues like climate change and the Supreme Court, Maher has criticized voters who opted for Jill Stein or even not voting at all instead of voting for Clinton because she was “the lesser of two evils.” Similar criticism followed the 2000 election where 537 votes separated George W. Bush from Al Gore in the state of Florida. Had left-leaning Nader supporters voted strategically, Gore would have won the state and the presidency. In other words, failure to vote strategically can lead to negative consequences.

On the other hand, arguments have been made that strategic voting is wrong. In 2006 in response to pressure placed on voters by the Liberal Party for NDP supporters to vote Liberal to stop a Conservative victory, Jack Layton noted that it is “frankly offensive” for Liberals “to tell Canadians they are limited to two choices, that they are limited to a choice between corruption and conservatives.” Indeed, it can lead to complacency amongst the political class if they can use the specter of the other side winning in order to secure votes, knowing that because voters lack a better option they don’t need to be as responsive to what voters want. This can lead to disengagement and frustration with the democratic process.

While the choice to vote strategically is an ethical issue, the way strategic voting is characterized can also raise ethical concerns. Strategic voting involves value judgments, and as a value judgment the language and rhetoric surrounding the issue is problematic and misleading, even amongst academic writers. In the wider public discussion, voting strategically has been described as “voting against” something rather than voting for something. To avoid a strategic vote, some politicians will suggest that voters “vote their conscience” rather than engaging in prudential reasoning. Academics studying the matter will compare strategic voting to “sincere” voting or will describe a strategic vote as a voter not choosing their “preferred candidate.”

But such language is misleading. As Philosopher John Dewey notes, value judgments are always specific. He argues that “A decision not to act is a decision to act in a certain way; it is never a judgment not to act, unqualifiedly.” Thus, if one does not wish to elect a politician, they are never merely voting against something. Instead. they are deciding that an election is worth boycotting, or that another politician is worth supporting (if they weren’t, one would have no reason to be strategic). Thus, it is never merely the case that we vote against things.

Dewey further argues that in forming a value judgment there is a difference between what we like and what we would prefer. Indeed, I may like the idea only eating donuts for the rest of my life. However, I consider both the means required to do this and the effects it would produce problematic and so I reject the idea. As Dewey sees it, “reflection is a process of finding what we want, what, as we say; we really want, and this means the formation of a new desire, and a new direction for action.” Does it make any sense then to claim that if my diet includes things other than donuts, I am not eating sincerely? Am I not, after careful reflection, eating my preferred diet?

The debate regarding strategic voting is complicated enough without including connotative language which suggests that a strategic vote is not “sincere,” not a vote “for something,” or that it means one is not following their preferences; all of these have the potential to illegitimately question the legitimacy of a vote and drag the debate in an unhelpful direction. By the same token, calling a vote that is not made for strategic reasons a “wasted” vote is not helpful either since the vote may be intended to avoid the long-term problem of an unresponsive political class. Perhaps the best way to examine the ethics of strategic voting is to clarify our language and to examine the issue carefully in terms of what voters are trying to achieve by making such value judgments and whether their judgments deliver the results they expect and are comfortable with.


This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

Reconciling Democracy and Incarceration

The United States tends to exhibit a great nationalistic pride in its democracy. And so generally, we assume that any U.S. citizen over the age of 18 is eligible to vote. Yet this right can be taken away permanently if one is convicted of a felony, the most common of which being drug-related. Ironically, the United States, proudly deemed the “Land of the Free,” has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Yet it still may be shocking to consider that [a]pproximately 2.5 percent of the total U.S. voting age population1 of every 40 adultsis disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction.

Continue reading “Reconciling Democracy and Incarceration”