The Case for Making Elections More Impartial and Competitive
This is one of several essays issued by Civic Way on state and local elections. Our intent is to step back from the interminable partisan battles over election integrity and voter rights. Our goal is to offer a comprehensive, yet pragmatic approach to reforming our election systems and strengthening our democracy. The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience improving governmental agencies across the US.
- Politicians have many tools at their disposal to suppress competition and preserve their jobs
- The 2020 election, characterized by high turnout and honest results, should be praised; continued efforts to discredit it, which could cause lasting damage to our democracy, should be scorned
- America once enjoyed a strong bipartisan commitment to democracy, but that devotion has faded
- The recent assault on election integrity poses a grave threat to the future of our democracy
- It is time for an impartial, apolitical approach to reforming our elections
Parties … have hijacked our democracy … we must reclaim it and organize around … solutions not parties … – Cory Booker
In real life, most of us don’t get to choose our own bosses. In virtually every endeavor—work, play or military service—someone else decides. But politics is different. The politicians, be they Democrats or Republicans, do everything they can to choose their voters, to set rules that will benefit them, not necessarily those they serve. When they succeed, they get to keep their jobs even when we lose ours.
The US has a representative democracy. We voters select representatives to enact policies, including election laws. The political class may fool us with soaring rhetoric about voter access, electoral integrity and democracy, but its top priority is power. Not surprisingly, policies promoting incumbent retention tend to dislodge those fostering competitive elections and voter engagement.
Unfortunately, by ceding elections to politicians, we invite the fox into the henhouse. Most politicians understand that, even when we pay attention, it is rarely for long. Knowing this, politicians manipulate the rules. They gerrymander their districts. They favor some voters at the expense of others. They empower partisan officials to run elections. They toy with our most sacred right.
Extreme gerrymandering, antiquated voter registration practices, onerous voter identification rules, disappearing polling places and opaque campaign finance reports. These are just some of the techniques by which politicians retain their power. And it is these techniques that this series will illuminate.
The 2020 Election
With the clamor about the 2020 presidential election, one might think that it was last November’s only election. However, Americans voted in 35 US Senate races, 435 congressional races, 11 gubernatorial contests, scores of statewide elections, over 5,800 state legislative races and thousands of local elections.
And, in the face of the pandemic, voter turnout was stunning, the highest for a presidential election in over a century. Over 100 million Americans voted before Election Day and 65 million voted by mail. In Utah, a bright red state, voter turnout surpassed 90 percent (94 percent voted by mail).
Sadly, the former President could not muster the courage or grace to concede. Instead, he and his allies did something both audacious and reckless. They spread unsubstantiated claims of election fraud. They urged state legislatures to replace valid electors. They pressured state and local officials to nullify results. They tried to overturn the popular vote (but only for the election they lost).
Still, it should not be overlooked that, despite a massive turnout, a global pandemic and cyberattack threats, the 2020 election was one of the most secure in our history. Countless state and local election officials (Republicans and Democrats) did their jobs. They ran clean elections and kept voters safe. They resisted partisan threats. They refused to decertify valid results. And they were vindicated by scores of recounts, audits and judicial rulings.
Many Republicans accept the legitimacy of the 2020 elections. Not just because they respect the process, but because they appreciate the risks of recklessly discrediting our elections for political purposes. On January 6, 2021, the day of the Capitol Coup, Republican Senator McConnell said, “The voters, the courts and the states have all spoken. If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever.”
Our Bipartisan Consensus of Not So Long Ago
The recent partisan bickering about elections is troubling, but it should not blind us to our prior progress. Since the 1960s, the US has expanded access to millions of voters. In the last 20 years, many states have sensible electoral reforms, such as automatic registration, early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, voting by mail (VBM) and independent redistricting commissions.
For decades, the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) enjoyed strong bipartisan support. The VRA’s preclearance mechanism required certain jurisdictions (mostly southern states) to obtain prior federal approval for new voting rules. VRA Section 2 allowed judicial relief for denying voting rights based on race. The VRA brought about huge increases in minority voter registration in some states. President Reagan expanded the VRA and President George W. Bush extended preclearance by 25 years.
There have been other bipartisan election initiatives. In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). In 2005, the Federal Election Reform Commission, co-chaired by ex-President Carter and ex-Secretary of State Baker, called for a “modern electoral system” with universal voter registration, easy voter identification, secure voting systems and impartial electoral administration.
More recently, the pandemic yielded several instances of good faith bipartisanship efforts to improve election processes. To alleviate in-person voting risks, several states expanded online registration, no-excuse absentee voting, VBM and early voting and made other accommodations. Unfortunately, there are troubling signs that our bipartisan, pro-democracy era has ended—at least for now.
The Fading Bipartisan Commitment to Democracy
It is hard to pick a precise moment when our faith in elections began to unravel. Was it in 2000 with George W. Bush’s Supreme Court-aided, 500-vote margin in Florida? Was it after 2008 when some challenged Barack Obama’s US citizenship? Or was it even later, in 2016, with the speculation that Trump’s Electoral College win could not have happened without foreign interference?
In years past, both parties tried their best to game the electoral system in the states they controlled. Both parties used gerrymandering, for example. Partisan fights about voter registration and voting access were often more about winning and losing than fairness and integrity. But, beneath the surface of such disputes there was a strong bipartisan commitment to fair elections and democracy.
That consensus has vanished. When one party concludes they cannot overcome demographic trends and win future elections with better candidates and messaging, panic sets in. New rules are enacted to make future elections less competitive. When new rules produce the wrong results, the results are overturned. Contests lost are discredited. Ultimately, our fragile democracy unravels.
The underlying political strategy may have been formulated earlier, but it became more visible after Obama’s election. Cold, but clever, it involves three synchronized elements:
- Public – convince American voters (without evidence if necessary) that elections are so riddled with fraud that they can no longer produce reliable outcomes
- Legislative – enact state legislation to deregister infrequent voters and restrict voter access, especially for voters who might support the other party (e.g., minority and young voters)
- Judicial – decimate prior judicial rulings that protect voter rights (e.g., the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision which invalidated the VRA’s preclearance regimen)
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United and Shelby County decisions (and more recent Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee case) unleashed the restrictive voting laws and flood of dark money that followed.
The Renewed Attack on American Elections
Since the 2020 elections, the assault on our electoral processes has become even more sinister. The strategy has morphed from voter suppression to election slander. Having already convinced some voters that only their votes should count, its next step was to sell the lie that the 2020 election was rigged.
Telling one lie about one election made it easier to lie about others. If we can convince people that one election was fraudulent, why not sow doubts about the others we don’t win? Why not convince citizens that their democratic institutions and processes can no longer be trusted? Heads I win, tails you lose. Not a recipe for fostering democracy, but certainly a good scheme for acquiring power.
And the strategy is working. After weeks of hearing that the 2020 election was stolen, over half of Republicans came to believe that Biden stole the election. With shameless hypocrisy and cynicism, the right-wing think tanks fell into line. The Heritage Foundation, for example, shortly after reporting that the voter fraud rate was negligible for two decades of elections, abruptly shifted gears, joining the campaign to discredit our elections.
This synchronized campaign paved the way for callous legislation to dismantle state electoral systems. Since January 2021, Republican lawmakers in virtually every state have introduced over 400 partisan election bills. Some bills would make it harder to vote. Some would enable legislatures to seize control of local elections. Some would empower legislatures to determine election outcomes. According to “A Democracy Crisis in the Making,” if such bills had been law in 2020, the “outcome of the presidential election could have been decided contrary to how the people voted.”
When one follows the bizarre election “audit” in Arizona or plans for similar hit jobs in other states (i.e., Georgia, Michigan, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania), it is easy to miss the point. The goal is not to overturn the 2020 election, but rather to dictate the outcome of future elections. The “ninja” audits are merely a pretext for influencing and, if necessary, overturning future elections.
Saving Democracy from Politicians
The arguments about election integrity and voter access are no mere partisan disputes. The real issue is whether we want to live in a democracy with competitive, trustworthy elections. It is about striking a balance between security and fairness. It is about protecting elections from politicians.
Without a new approach, our nation is careening toward a dual, hyper-partisan voting system, one for red states and one for blue states. One that, in the name of electoral integrity, imposes draconian measures on some citizens. One that, in service of voter access, makes voting easier at the potential risk of more fraud.
What is the best approach for ensuring fair, competitive and reliable elections? It must be comprehensive. It must be impartial, reflecting the best practices of prior bipartisan efforts (e.g., Kentucky and Washington). It must be controlled by citizens and civic leaders who care more about their nation, state and community than narrow partisan interests. It must involve experienced election administrators. And it must set minimal national standards (e.g., voting access, security and administration).
This issue could not be more critical to our future. In the coming essays, we will break it down and offer some possible solutions. Our ultimate goal is to advance ideas that will restore public faith in the fairness and integrity of state and local elections. To that end, we welcome your ideas, too.
We have taken democracy for granted [and] forgotten that it has to be enacted anew in every generation… – John Dewey