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Beyond the Liberal Voting Rights Agenda

We should expand voting rights to advance democracy — not just the Democratic Party.

Ralph Abernathy and his wife Juanita Abernathy walk with Dr Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King on the front line of a march from Selma to Montgomery for the right to vote, 1965. Abernathy Family Photos / Wikimedia

The last few years have seen liberals intensify their focus on voting rights — and with good reason. In 2013 the Supreme Court stripped away protections that had been offered under the Voting Rights Act since 1965, and fourteen states responded by installing new voter restrictions. While hardly the only contributing factor to Trump’s 2016 victory, these measures may have had a crucial effect in swing states. Meanwhile, Republicans have stepped up their efforts to gerrymander state and federal legislative districts, reducing political competition even further. In the wake of the election, voting rights protections have become a top priority for liberal advocacy organizations and super PACs.

Of course liberals, with their Democratic Party loyalties, have a vested interest in targeting certain types of political repression. Strict voter ID laws, for example, are designed specifically to disenfranchise sections of the Democratic Party’s voter base: young people, people of color, and the poor, all of whom are less likely to hold a valid driver’s license. That helps explain why Republicans tend to support such laws while Democrats generally oppose them. (In fact, a recent study found that “Democrats who were told that [voter ID laws] will reduce Republican turnout were statistically indistinguishable from Republicans in terms of support for [voter ID laws].”) As for gerrymandering, in recent years it’s been wielded mainly against Democrats by Republican state legislatures — but in earlier eras, the opposite was the case, with little complaint from Democrats.

The liberal focus on voting rights may be self-interested, but it’s also to the good. The project of wresting control of society from capitalist elites hinges on the ability of concerted majorities to control the state — and that requires that everyone be able to participate in the democratic process on equal terms. But we can’t be satisfied with liberals’ limited efforts on this front. The American political system is rife with hidden and not-so-hidden mechanisms designed to limit popular power. Most of these go ignored by Democrats.

Two-Timing

Take the example of local elections. Voter turnout in local elections is a national scandal — not only is it dismal, it’s declining. Across the country, less than 15 percent of eligible people vote in local elections. In Dallas’s 2015 elections, only 6 percent of those who could vote for mayor did; their median age was 62. Compare that with the Spain’s 65 percent turnout rate in its most recent local elections, or France’s turnout rate of 64 percent.

Low turnout isn’t an accident: it’s the intended result of state laws that schedule city elections in off-years and off-months. One California study, which found that “an alarmingly small percentage of California residents decides” local elections, concluded that “about half the difference in voter turnout across California cities can be traced to a single factor — election timing.” And there’s nothing new about this: “The manipulation of election timing was a regular feature of political party strategy in the nineteenth century,” concludes a study by Stanford political scientist Sarah Anzia. “At the dawn of mass political party organization, as restrictions on white male suffrage crumbled and party elites sought patronage to build their organizations, election timing manipulation emerged as one way to exert some control over the electorate.”

From the start, then, off-cycle elections were designed to reverse the trend toward greater democratic participation brought about by expanded suffrage. The solution is to change the laws: as many different offices as possible should be consolidated into a single election day. And while we’re at it, Election Day should be a federal holiday. While it’s heartening to see the rising popularity of automatic voter registration, a reform pioneered by liberals, the fact remains that even when they’re registered, working people are forced to negotiate with their employers to participate in this most basic expression of democracy.

If we can’t immediately compel employers to automatically compensate all workers for time off on Election Day, we should, in the meantime, at least elevate it to the status of George Washington’s birthday.

All’s Quiet on the Electoral Front

Political scientists consistently find that turnout goes up when races are close and when people perceive major differences among the candidates. Yet huge numbers of races around the country aren’t even contested by one of the two major parties. Many more lack genuine competition, particularly in Congress.

Liberals tend to focus on gerrymandering as the source of dwindling electoral competition — in no small part because it consistently works in Republicans’ favor. But while gerrymandering is blatantly designed to weaken individual voter impact when it does occur, its effect on the overall picture of electoral competitiveness is relatively minimal. “If you look at elections in California before and after they adopted their independent redistricting commission,” says Drew Penrose, Legal and Policy Director at Fairvote, “you’ll see that the number of competitive districts remains exactly the same. Sometimes gerrymandering does work by taking really closely divided states and making them a little bit less competitive, but the impact is overstated.”

Instead, lack of competition comes from a more fundamental problem: our continued reliance on winner-take-all elections. There’s nothing inevitable about voting for a single candidate, for a single seat. Doing so in a context of massive two-party polarization — especially given Americans’ tendency to cluster geographically within politically homogeneous areas — guarantees uncompetitive elections.  Penrose suggests splitting up states into regions that are much larger than the small districts we currently use, and then voting for multiple candidates in those regions, using a more open process like ranked-choice voting. With a larger field and multiple victors, says Penrose, “there’s no way to confidently predict which candidates are going to win. Every race is competitive, and you end up with a more accurate representation of the voters overall.” A bill introduced to congress this year would do exactly that.

Eliminating winner-take-all elections could have an important effect for democracy: it could help loosen the stranglehold of the two official parties. The majority of Americans want a third major party, but there’s currently no room for one to thrive. That’s partly due to our winner-take-all election system, but it’s also partly due to America’s repressive system of party regulation. Since roughly the 1920s, the two parties have set draconian rules regarding what political parties need to do to get a ballot line, while generously exempting themselves from the requirements. Most states dictate that a party needs a certain number of signatures to get on the ballot, but exempt any party that won more than a certain percentage of the vote at the last election. That type of rule obviously perpetuates the dominance of the two established parties — while extinguishing electoral competition, exacerbating partisan polarization, and driving down turnout.

Ballots and Roses

The Left has a tendency to cede ground to liberals, gravitating toward political niches where it can differentiate itself. This often leaves behind a vacuum — policies that are natural and strategic for leftists to advance are neglected because they fall under liberal jurisdiction. In the case of voting rights, the Democratic Party is primarily interested in electoral reforms that aid its central project of consolidating and retaining party power. It’s up to the Left to demand changes benefit democracy itself.

Today, many socialists aspire to create a mass independent socialist political party that will fight for the working class against capitalist interests and the major parties in their thrall. But how will such a socialist party find its footing if the very people it seeks to build into a constituency are boxed out of the political process by design, and minor parties deliberately relegated to the margins? If we’re serious about creating conditions in which a new anticapitalist politics can flourish, we can’t leave it to the Democrats, either.