Bernie Sanders is not a sore loser: Our democracy is screwed unless we fix the unfair rules

Frank Bruni is wrong. Talking about reforming our undemocratic election rules is how we make the system stronger

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published May 2, 2016 9:58AM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders   (AP/John Minchillo)
Bernie Sanders (AP/John Minchillo)

Mainstream coverage of the Bernie Sanders campaign tends to suggest that they were falsely blaming voting fraud for their loss.  In the establishment narrative that describes Sanders as an unrealistic candidate that has no chance of actually winning, there seems almost no possibility that any objection from the Sanders camp can be taken seriously. The story becomes the campaign’s inability to deal with reality and it ignores the real complaints voters have about the election process.

This angle is all wrong.  First, because we are indeed in the midst of a real crisis in our democracy. And second, because, even though the Sanders campaign may well want to win, they are equally invested in the idea of a free and fair election regardless of which candidate a voter supports.

Sanders has been consistent on this issue.  He believes each candidate should care about making sure the democratic process is working.  As he put it in his response to the primary results:  “I don’t mind losing, but three million people in New York State who registered as independents didn’t have the right to participate in the Democratic or Republican primary. That really is not democracy.”

He’s right.

But rather than see how his campaign is shedding light on a number of ways that our democratic process could use an overhaul, too much of the narrative misses the point and codes what is happening in the two-party establishment rhetoric that can’t recognize real gaps in voter rights.  Or to be more blunt and follow political comedian Lee Camp’s analysis, the Sanders campaign is making the US plutocracy more obvious than ever.

Much coverage of the New York primary simply overlooked the real issues that took place—issues that signal severe limits to our democratic process.  Regardless of who you support in the race, shouldn’t we all be in favor of a free and fair election?  And if democracy depends on the idea that we are able to vote without interference, then why aren’t we all asking more questions about the string of concerning issues we have seen take place this election?

The idea that our democracy is not exactly perfect is nothing new and it has a long history.  But today we have ample evidence of subtle and overt ways that voters are suppressed and discouraged.

Recall the outrage over the lines of voters when Barack Obama was first elected. In 2008, there were reports of voters in Georgia waiting in lines over 12 hours long to vote.  And those issues have yet to be resolved.  We continue to hear of intolerably long lines.  We also can’t forget the 2000 election fiasco and the Florida recount, which many see as handing George Bush the presidency. It remains astonishing that after that mess we still stick to an electoral college.  Remember that in that race, Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College, a fact that seems a clear sign that our system needs rethinking.

But there’s more. Some would argue that the very fact that we do not vote on a holiday is itself a clear signal that our democracy is stacked against those in the working class.  In fact, Sanders himself sponsored legislation to make Election Day a holiday. I’ve also made the point that not voting on holidays disproportionately affects students who often have long complicated days of classes and can’t easily get to voting booths on school days—especially when they need to expect to be waiting in lines for hours.

Add to that the new voter ID laws that again disproportionately affect certain segments of the population.   Texas, which has one of the most extreme laws on the books, only recently struck down a provision that recognized gun permits but not student IDs. Its law is still considered to be clearly discriminatory towards voters likely to support Democrats.

And in many states, like Arizona, we are witnessing a dramatic reduction in polling sites that was brought on by the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act.  Arizona’s Maricopa County reduced their polling sites by two-thirds and there were reports of people waiting five hours or more to cast their ballots.

These were all issues we knew going into the latest round of the primary season, and they would all be reason enough to consider the extent to which our elections are truly democratic, but last week’s New York primary raised a whole new set of reasons to worry.

Here are some of the facts:

  1. New York has a closed primary which means independents can’t cast a ballot. That means that 3.2 million voters could not participate in the primary, a fact that disproportionately affected the Bernie Sanders campaign.   Despite going to court to fight to open the primary, independents lost and were excluded from the election.
  2. Most primary voting sites in New York opened at noon—a longstanding practice to reduce costs—but one that also affects those that have to commute and would like to vote before work.
  3. In Brooklyn, the hometown of Bernie Sanders, about 10% of voters had been removed from the rolls, a move that disenfranchised about 126,000 voters. Even Clinton supporter New York Mayor Bill di Blasio, found that move of concern.
  4. The New York Board of Elections sent the wrong primary date, September 13, to 60,000 newly registered voters. They issued a reprint and apologized for the mistake, but it’s hard to know how many voters that error affected.

As Mother Jones reports, the story of the New York primary just keeps “getting weirder.”

But so far the story is less about voting irregularities in New York and more about how the Sanders campaign won’t cope with reality.  The media often depicts him as a kook who refuses to believe he isn’t winning.  Even comedian Trevor Noah parroted the mainstream line. He covered the Sanders New York loss saying, “he comes off a little paranoid.”

As Camp ironically points out, “If you watched the mainstream media, then you know Bernie Sanders is not just a giant loser but he should've honor-killed himself a long time ago.”

Camp goes on to prove though that the idea that Sanders doesn’t have support simply doesn’t line up with reality either.  As the New York Times shows, Sanders won many more New York counties than Clinton—but he didn’t take Manhattan where most of the voting issues took place. Coincidence?  To make matters worse there is evidence that exit polls and actual results are quite skewed –consistently showing more voters saying they voted for Sanders than are actually counted.  Conspiracy? We won’t know if no one bothers to investigate.

And as if the bias towards Sanders in the media weren’t obvious enough it seems important to point out that it’s not exactly like Sanders is simply losing. He won seven straight primaries before New York and in some states he has completely trounced Clinton.

The mainstream media seems to have forgotten all of these successes and seems to just be eagerly waiting for Sanders to drop out.

But according to Camp, no one should be expecting Sanders to drop out any time soon:

A) because it's likely neither Clinton nor Sanders will get to the magic delegate number before the convention. B) because Hillary could be indicted any day for... well, for all kinds of shit. And finally because I - and millions of others - don't give a flying fuck about your delegate count and your rigged votes. This is not about Bernie - It's about a movement.

One key part of that movement is a desire to rescue our democracy from the plutocracy and make sure that everyone has the right to vote.

Like it or not the Sanders campaign is fighting on two fronts: it is fighting to gain support for their political revolution and it is also fighting to make sure that our democracy works. It is time to wonder why the one campaign that is defending voter rights is the same campaign the media most wants to dismiss.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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