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American democracy: New—and improved?

By Didi Kuo, academic research and program manager for the Program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective at FSI’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law

Voters around the world are loudly expressing their dissatisfaction with their governments. Many established democracies are experiencing democratic malaise: Voters don’t trust their government, don’t trust political parties, don’t believe that political institutions get anything done and don’t think their government represents people like them. Embracing ideas from ethnic nationalism to secession, citizens turn to populist candidates who decry special interests and corruption, but attack liberalism and the rule of law. What’s an established democracy to do?

Something new and different. The Hertie School of Governance in Berlin recently convened a group of experts to examine the ways democracies are innovating in order to increase voter participation and trust. For Hertie’s 2017 Governance Report, I analyzed the evolution of voting policy and practices in the United States.

All (American) politics is local

There isn’t much democratic innovation going on at the federal level. Although plenty of academics and policymakers would like to see lobbying or campaign finance reform, the U.S. has too many vested interests to push through meaningful changes. National politics are dominated by polarization and gridlock, so little gets done.

But in the United States, it’s important to remember, voting is controlled almost entirely at the state and local level. Most democracies have centralized election administration, with one set of rules and regulations that govern how national elections are carried out. But U.S. elections are administered by each state, and many states further devolve oversight to local towns and cities. By one estimate there are more than 8,000 separate jurisdictions that oversee American elections. Many of those jurisdictions are indeed innovating, typically in one of two ways: making voting easier, or making it harder.

Who gets to vote?

These divergent sets of reforms — one aiming to increase voter access, the other to reduce it — point to the difficulty of broader innovation in the United States. One reason the United States is such an outlier among consolidated democracies is that voting rights are still politicized and contested here. Some states, like California, have adopted access-expanding reforms such as independent redistricting commissions, automatic voter registration, and top-two primaries. Others have implemented voter identification laws in an ostensible fight against election fraud.

Voter ID is the most recent in a series of efforts to reduce purported election fraud. Politicians who support voter ID claim that the benefits of cleaning up the election process outweigh the additional cost imposed on voters by obtaining identification.

There is almost no credible evidence to substantiate claims of election fraud. Instead, scholars find that the strongest predictors of adoption of voter ID laws includes high African American turnout and high levels of Hispanic population growth. African American and Hispanic voters are also less likely to possess drivers’ licenses or other forms of state identification.

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Voting in the United States remains much more onerous than voting in other countries. Voters must register themselves to vote (instead of being registered by default through other forms of contact with the government), and are responsible for changing their voter registration when they move. Further, in many states, voters must register many weeks in advance of Election Day, or else they will not be permitted to vote. Election Day itself is inconvenient for many voters, since it is neither on a weekend nor a holiday. Further, voters may live far from their assigned election precincts, or may not have easy transportation to the polls. In recent years, poorly administered elections have also resulted in long, multi-hour lines.

Doesn’t everybody do this kind of thing?

The U.S. is unusual in the way it approaches democratic innovation. While parties in most democracies try to win by increasing their vote share, the United States has a long history of manipulating (and truncating) the electorate in order to serve electoral purposes. After the Civil War, the Democratic Party in the South implemented Jim Crow laws, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and onerous registration requirements, to keep African-American citizens from voting. It was not until the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s that franchise restrictions were banned by the Voting Rights Act. When portions of that Act were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, Republican state and local governments across the country immediately moved to reinstate many of the voting laws that had been forbidden.

Some countries do have efforts to ban opposition parties, but in advanced democracies it’s taken for granted that you have centralized, non-partisan election administration and the state registers you to vote. In the U.S., partisan state governments determine rules governing campaign finance, rules about which candidates can run, and rules governing Election Day procedures. Even more importantly, they determine the qualifications to vote, including residency requirements and registration deadlines. Therefore, the rules that govern elections — just like the district boundaries drawn by partisan legislatures — may serve to advantage one party at the expense of the other.

What to do

There are many potential remedies to the morass of voting restrictions in the United States. In my contribution to the Governance Report, I discussed automatic voter registration (AVR), which has been adopted by six states (California, Oregon, West Virginia, Vermont, Connecticut, and Alaska). AVR automatically adds people to the polls when they apply for drivers’ licenses. Democratic members of the House of Representatives, and Senator Bernie Sanders, have also introduced Congressional legislation to implement automatic voter registration. Another 12 states have same-day registration, which allows voters to register on Election Day.

Given America’s federal system, and its long history of contested voting rights, it is unsurprising that there is little in the way of national democratic innovation. The struggle to increase voting access and to depoliticize elections instead takes place in state legislatures, and will continue to result in uneven change across the country.