Do we still have a democracy?


The midterms are behind us, and now it’s time to take a look at the challenges facing our democracy. Despite President Donald Trump’s allegations, there has been almost no voter fraud in our elections. There are, however, other serious threats to our democracy and our country’s ability to hold fair elections in which every eligible voter has an opportunity to cast a ballot.

Voter suppression
Attempts to keep people from voting are not new. In 1908, New York City officials tried to enact a law that would suppress the Jewish vote by holding voter registration on a Saturday or on the Monday of that year, which just happened to coincide with Yom Kippur.

Today’s efforts are no less blatant and are used primarily by the Republican Party to suppress the votes of minorities that typically vote Democratic. We saw this in the midterms, most notably when Georgia’s secretary of state, Brian Kemp, invoked the exact match law to suspend 53,000 ballots for minor infractions, such as a hyphen missing from a name. Seventy percent of the applications were from African-Americans. In Florida, where voters overwhelmingly approved allowing more than 1.4 million felons who have completed their sentences to vote, there are already rumors that the heavily Republican legislature will try to prevent these mostly Democratic voters from casting their ballots in 2020. Nearly 100 bills designed to reduce voter access were introduced last year in 31 states.

This term is derived from Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who in 1812 enacted a law defining new state Senate districts. Gerrymandering has been utilized by both major parties to provide an unfair advantage by redrawing boundaries for the benefit of one party over another. Several states — including Pennsylvania, Texas, North Carolina and Maryland — have used this practice to make sure that the type of population within the manipulated boundaries assures the election of a party’s candidates.

Citizens United
Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations had the same right as people to spend money on elections and that there should be virtually no limitations on non-candidate spending. This led to the use of so-called super PACs, greatly increasing the ability of the wealthy and super-wealthy to have outsized influence on our elections. The Center for Responsive Politics projects that more than $5 billion was spent on the recent midterms. Wealthy individuals, such as Sheldon Adelson, Michael Bloomberg and others, each spent more than $100 million during this past election cycle. Domination of politics by the super-wealthy greatly reduces the influence of less-advantaged voters.

Election Day
It seems unthinkable that, unlike in many other countries, our Election Day is not a national holiday. Many citizens are unable or unwilling to vote due to financial considerations or because they cannot take time off from work. Simply exchanging Election Day for Veteran’s Day would greatly encourage voter participation, and this one-for-one trade would have limited effect on businesses. Of course, those who wish to suppress the vote will always oppose this rather simple fix to our election system.

Census citizenship question
For the first time in more than 70 years, the GOP-controlled government wants to add a question about citizenship. Studies have shown that this will lead to an undercounting of the population and will affect, among other things, the reapportionment of congressional districts and state legislative maps. Adding a citizenship question would also lead to redistricting that underrepresents undocumented immigrants in districts that tend to vote Democratic.

Our three branches of government                                                                                                                                                  Our founding fathers were very astute in instituting a system of government whereby the three equal branches are a check on each other. Our democracy depends upon these branches maintaining their independence and is severely compromised when one of those branches, as is the case currently in the Senate and House, is subservient to another branch.

The president’s unrelenting attacks on the judiciary, the press, immigrants and the electoral process have severely put into question the trust that we, as citizens, have in our democratic institutions and, in many cases, highlight the weaknesses in our system of government. Unless our elected representatives become willing to correct these flaws, the degradation of our democracy will only get worse.

One could argue that our great democracy, in which citizens supposedly choose their representatives in fair and open elections, is really “democracy lite.”

It needs to be fixed.

Michael Gelman is a member of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes Washington Jewish Week.

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