Increase Democracy and Save the Nation

In this lame duck interlude, let’s pause and consider our nation’s debilitating trajectory. There’s fierce, seething partisanship in Washington. It worries Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman to the point that he warns “there will be blood sooner or later. And we can only hope that the nation that emerges from that blood bath is still one we recognize. “

The future does look grim, but I think we can change direction if we make our nation more democratic. This necessitates terminating the partisan black ops that prevent all citizens from having an equal ability to hold public officials accountable. In simpler language, to overcome our major problems we must pursue strategies that enhance the electoral influence of the majority of Americans, the working class and the great majority of African Americans and Latinos in particular.             

Our polity has never invited widespread involvement. It was only as a result of lengthy and bitter struggles that women, African Americans, Indians, Asian Americans and  Mexican Americans won the vote. The nation’s entrenched obstacles to electoral involvement helps explain why our voting rates lag behind virtually all the major European states as well as Brazil, Costa Rica, Chile, Japan, India and many others. If we trusted our fellow citizens, we could easily institutionalize changes that would greatly reduce the number of non-voters.  

Allowing citizens to register and vote on the same day would greatly enhance the voting rates of the segments of the electorate that have the nation’s lowest turn-out rates. In 2004, voting rates in the ten states that have same-day registration were 12 percent higher than states without it. In the midterm elections of 2006, they were 10-12 percent higher. Moreover, there is no evidence that same-day registration states experience more voting fraud than other states.

Electoral fraud can come in many forms including non-citizen voting, voting with the name of deceased citizens, and voting based on fraudulent registration or by felons who lost the right to vote. There’s also fraud resulting from how election officials decide who may vote, or how they tabulate results, and how they process absentee ballots. Despite the numerous ways it may be perpetrated, extensive research shows that fraud affects less than 1 percent of all votes cast.  Indeed, it is more likely a voter will be struck by lightning on Election Day than vote more than once in any given election.

Our recent national concern with voting fraud is better explained by partisan passions than by any political realities. There’s a Republican-sponsored law in Indiana that requires voter ID verification that other states are emulating, despite research from respected think tanks and briefs by Secretaries of State from Ohio, Missouri, Vermont, Georgia and Maryland that found that such requirements disenfranchise voters. Despite the lack of evidence documenting electoral fraud, federal courts upheld the law because there is no evidence that requiring IDs prevents voting. The reasoning is as irrelevant to reality as is the now-discarded concept of Limbo created by Catholic scholastics to explain how to access Heaven.

The polity, in short, continues to attempt to limit the access of the working class to the ballot box. This will result in more policies that favor the interests of elites over the needs of the majority.  This will serve the short run interests of Republicans, but over time it could produce the instability Krugman suggests is inevitable. To avoid that, the nation must overcome its legacy and trust all citizens enough to guarantee all of them equal access to the ballot box.

Rodolfo de la Garza, a Columbia University professor of Political Science, has studied immigration, political attitudes and voting for over 30 years. He directed the first national political survey of Latinos and has authored, co-authored and edited 18 books and more than 100 scholarly articles and reports on foreign policy, immigration and political attitudes and behavior.