Down for the Count: An Exclusive Excerpt
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The following is from Andrew Gumbel's book, Down for the Count, which explores the tawdry history of elections in the United States – a chronicle of votes bought, stolen, suppressed, lost, miscounted, thrown into rivers– and explains why we are now struggling with the biggest backslide in voting rights in more than a century. America is unique among established Western democracies in its inability to run clean, transparent elections, and the partisan battles now raging over voter ID, out-of-control campaign spending, and minority voting rights fit into a long, largely unspoken tradition of hostility to the very idea of representative democracy. And, in our age of high-stakes electoral combat, billionaire-backed candidacies, and bottom-of-the-barrel campaigning, that hostility is only growing.
A few days before the 2004 presidential election, Jimmy Carter was asked what would happen if, instead of flying to Zambia, Venezuela, or East Timor, his respected international election-monitoring team turned its attention to the United States. His answer: the shortcomings of the system were so egregious that his colleagues at the Carter Center would never agree to such a thing. “We wouldn’t think of it,” he said. “The American political system wouldn’t measure up to any sort of international standards.”
The former president reeled off four examples of what he meant: the lack of a nonpartisan central electoral commission to establish standards and approve voting equipment; the lack of uniformity in voting rules across the country, or even within individual states; the absence of a media environment in which candidates for office were offered equal air time free of charge, as happened routinely in most other mature democracies; and the failure of much of the country’s voting equipment to provide for meaningful recounts.
He could have added many more items to the list: the lack of accurate voter lists and the politicization of trying to amend them; the multiple obstacles to voter registration, leading to the disenfranchisement of tens of millions of eligible voters, including several million who want to cast a ballot in any given election season but find they cannot; the disenfranchisement of more than five million felons and ex-felons, in violation of the 1990 Copenhagen Document to which the United States is a signatory; the gross lack of competitiveness in congressional and state legislative races due to the distorting effects of campaign money, partisan gerrymandering, and the vast advantages of incumbency; the continuing pattern of discrimination and exclusion of African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, new voters, students, and the poor; the lack of voting machines in many low-income neighborhoods, leading to impossibly long lines on Election Day and further de facto disenfranchisement; and the failure to police obvious conflicts of interest, to the point where election managers at county and state levels can be in charge of races in which they are themselves candidates or—as happened in Florida in 2000 and in Ohio in 2004—are entrusted with certifying the results of a presidential vote after playing a leading partisan role in the campaign.
Carter did in fact say more as soon as the 2004 election was over. The following year, he teamed up with James Baker, seasoned confidant to four Republican presidents, in a worthy but ultimately ill-fated effort to institute meaningful across-the-board reform that both major political parties could embrace. Sadly, the parties were in no mood to find common ground, on voting rights or anything else, and the only lasting legacy of the Carter-Baker commission was to help unleash a torrent of restrictive voter ID laws in Republican-controlled states—a development Carter came to abhor because of its discriminatory effect on African American voters.
By 2015, the former president was so exasperated he described the United States in another radio interview as “just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery.” He was talking, specifically, about the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which had lifted all limits on so-called independent expenditures by corporations, unions, and other special interests supporting candidates for office. “We’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over,” he said. “The incumbents, Democrats and Republicans, look upon this unlimited money as a great benefit to themselves. Somebody who’s already in Congress has a lot more to sell to an avid contributor than somebody who’s just a challenger.”
Not so long ago, the corruptions and inadequacies of the American electoral system were close to a taboo subject, rarely discussed by political candidates or the mainstream media and recognized only by insiders and by those voters—minorities and the poor—with firsthand experience of the obstacles routinely thrown in their path. Often it took an outsider with no illusions about some impossibly idyllic democratic American past to see things more clearly. “Absolutely everything is a violation!” the chair of South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission, Brigalia Bam, exclaimed during a tour of Florida in 2004. “All these different systems in different counties with no accountability...
"It’s like the poorest village in Africa.”
Dr. Bam was, admittedly, basing her judgment on the state long recognized as the basket case of American election management. She’d spent several days in Florida listening to stories of voter intimidation, attempted suppression of the black vote, slapdash polling station procedures, and substandard voting machines that lost or miscounted votes. Then again, 2004 was a relatively good year in Florida’s recent electoral history, thanks to the introduction of provisional and early voting in response to the disasters of four years earlier, as well as some movement toward giving the vote back to ex-felons who had completed their probation and parole periods.
Had Bam returned eight or ten years later, she would have found that many of these progressive reforms had been either halted or reversed and that more than 10 percent of Florida’s voting-age population were now excluded from voting because of a past criminal conviction. (The national average is about 2.5 percent.)7 Many voting rights groups in the Sunshine State would have told her that instead of going out into the field and seeking to solve problems with registration or absentee balloting, as they had in 2004, they had all but given up fieldwork because of dizzying new restrictions that penalized even high school civics teachers seeking to register their eighteen-year-old students.
Regrettably, Florida is no longer an outlier. American democracy as a whole is experiencing its biggest backslide in more than a century. Where once it was the Democratic Party that perpetuated the most egregious inequalities and disregarded the civil rights of whole classes of voters, now it is an ascendant Republican Party that is using the language of reform and “commonsense” theft and fraud prevention to whip up its supporters and wage a furious war of attrition against voters it has identified as loyalists for the other side—minorities, recent immigrants, young people, and the poor. Some voters have allowed themselves to be buffeted by great gusts of partisan outrage and even to cheer on the malfeasance, as long as it benefits their side. Many more feel overwhelmed by apathy or disgust.
The backslide has only been exacerbated by some truly disastrous rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, starting with the notorious Bush v. Gore decision that ended the 2000 election without resorting to anything so vulgar as counting the votes. Citizens United made it possible for special interests on both sides of the political aisle to buy candidates, poison the airwaves with distorted negative advertising, and effectively buy all but the highest-profile races at national, state, and local levels. Shelby County v. Holder (2013) dismantled a vital part of the Voting Rights Act that for almost half a century had given the Justice Department the power to police new election laws in states and counties with a track record of discrimination; the ruling has emboldened several states, especially in the South, to amp up their election laws to a degree of repressiveness unseen since the segregation era.
The United States was the first country in the world to embrace democratic rights as we now understand them, the first to see mass participation in the political life of its rural townships and emerging big cities. No country has been as vocal about the vibrancy of its democracy, or lectured the world more zealously about following its example. And yet, the health of that democracy has been repeatedly undermined by corrupt institutions, dirty elections, and extraordinary bursts of voter manipulation and suppression. How come? The answer has a lot to do with the way racism was hardwired into the system from the beginning, and also a lot to do with the way those heady ideals have butted up at key moments against powerful economic and political forces with no interest in living up to them. Most strikingly, the question of who gets to vote has never been fully settled and, for that reason, has never gone away.