democracy is a work in progress
Takeaways2021-05-01T09:55:20-05:00

Key Takeaways

  • Public trust in government has declined as voting rights have eroded and Congress has failed to resolve systemic problems while appearing more beholden to corporations and the wealthy.
  • Gerrymandering has evolved and become more extreme as data analytics now enables more precision in drawing district lines.
  • Since 2010, 25 states have imposed new voting requirements that make it more difficult for African Americans and Hispanics to participate in elections.
  • As parties have been increasingly unable to find common ground, the public has grown less favorable towards them.

Summary

Competition for elective office is at a 40-year low, voter suppression is on the rise again, foreign interference in our elections is well-established, and the will of the majority of voters no longer seems to matter when it comes to passage of legislation, who becomes president, or whether climate change or income inequality are taken seriously in Congress. On top of that, some candidates and officials repeatedly tell us government is broken and then do nothing to fix it once elected.

Unsurprisingly, recent reports tell us that the public’s trust in the federal government and other democratic institutions are at a 50-year low. Such reports are a healthy reminder of the good instincts of the American people.

The corrosion of voting rights is an important element in the steady loss of trust. Although it has long been the world’s beacon for democracy, the United States has a track record on voting rights that has consistently fallen short of the ideal. There is no ironclad protection of the democratic right to vote. Yet, the principle of “one person, one vote” has served as an aspiration that has slowly but steadily led to a more inclusive electorate, pushed back the barriers to voting , and increased the diversity of representation in policymaking.

Today, the Constitution and the laws supporting it make clear that all citizens, including blacks, women, native peoples, naturalized immigrants, and poor white men have the same rights, including the right to vote, as the propertied white men who were the only Americans eligible to cast a vote in the first presidential election. Unfortunately, the constitutional amendments and legislation that grant and protect voting rights are not enough to guarantee that all American citizens have the same ease and ability to register to vote and cast their ballot.

Our legal structures are promises only, and the right to an equal voice and equal protection just two of many priorities. There are always groups who will fail to respect that promise and the primacy of voting rights, and who will find ways — legal and otherwise — to take away the power of the vote in pursuit of other agendas. As Katie Fahey and the volunteers of Voters Not Politicians showed us, we have to be ready and willing to advocate for ourselves to protect our rights.

Gerrymandering and voter suppression are the two mechanisms in our electoral system most frequently identified when discussing the erosion of voter rights. More recently, new technologies have made it easier to hack into and interfere with the electoral process and actual votes cast. And the electoral college, that vestige of the founding fathers’ fear of the people’s will, perhaps now more than ever seems anti-democratic after two of the last three presidents were elected to their first terms despite losing the popular vote.

Considered separately, it is too easy to underestimate and ignore the damage being done to this cornerstone of democracy. Examined together, we can better grasp the depth of the problem and understand the resolve needed to fix it and then to make sure we continue to protect our rights.

Related Problems: Money in Politics, Income and Wealth Inequality

Contributors: George LinzerMichael Deal, Kyle Mullins

Reviewed by: Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress

Published: December 5, 2019

Last Updated: June 16, 2021

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