(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

The crisis runs deep: The candidates are just part of it — 10 reasons why our democracy is in real danger

Disillusioned yet? We don’t just have flawed candidates — we have a deeply, deeply flawed electoral system


Sophia A. McClennen
October 3, 2016 4:59PM (UTC)

As we enter the final stretch of the presidential campaign it has been hard to avoid focusing on how this election has broken records by generating two of the most disliked presidential candidates in 10 election cycles. In a poll out last week we find that “Both candidates inspire mostly negative emotions, but American voters are particularly anxious about the Republican.”

It’s not just the candidates that we don’t like. A recent Gallup poll showed that “Americans' trust in their political leaders and in the American people themselves to make political decisions continues to decline.” We have even hit a new low in national pride, with only 52 percent expressing patriotism this year: “Americans' continued frustration with national conditions — likely tied to their concern about the economy and lack of faith in public institutions — is probably one reason patriotism is at a recent low point.”

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Perhaps most important, U.S. confidence in the fairness of our elections has been sharply declining. Back in March, The Hill reported that, “Only three in 10 Americans believe that the nation’s process for electing a new president is functional, a record low.”

The perceptions of the public are reinforced by research that shows that the integrity of our electoral system is in real jeopardy. A recent Harvard study ranked the United States' election fairness at the bottom of all western nations. “U.S. elections scored lower than Argentina, South Africa, Tunisia and Rwanda — and strikingly lower than even Brazil. Specifically compared to Western democracies, U.S. elections scored the lowest, slightly worse than the U.K., while Denmark and Finland topped the list.”

So before we crack another joke about Donald Trump’s orange face or we wonder when Hillary Clinton will start being more likable, it’s worth asking whether our democracy itself is in serious peril. Here are 10 reasons why we should be worried:

  1. Money

It seems like simple arithmetic that if you allow elections to be overly influenced by corporations, the wealthy, and foreign interests, then your democracy is in trouble. There is substantial evidence that U.S. elections are overwhelmingly controlled by money and not by voters. We now know that the 2010 Citizen’s United decision didn’t just allow corporations to pump unrestricted funds into campaigns, it is also allowing foreign contributions to campaigns.

Even more important, we know there is a direct correlation between campaign funding and winning elections. In the 2012 elections, candidates who outspent opponents won 95 percent of the time. And less than 1 percent of U.S. citizens contribute 68 percent of campaign funds. We also know that big donors almost always contribute to campaigns because they expect favors. In a 1999 study on major campaign donations, 76 percent of donors stated that “their primary reason for donating to political candidates was to shape government policies.” Not surprising, but not democratic either.

  1. The Electoral College

As Fair Vote reports,The Electoral College favors the smaller states with disproportionate voting power.” But they go on to point out that, “Advocates of the system say that this uneven power forces politicians to pay attention to smaller states, which would otherwise be ignored.” Those in favor of the Electoral College further argue that it avoids allowing cities to become the center of campaigns, thereby forcing a presidential candidate to appeal to an Ohio factory worker and an Iowa hog farmer as well as city dwellers.

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But the primary flaw with the Electoral College in its current form is that it means that your vote only really “counts” if you are in certain swing states. That situation depresses turnout, sways campaigning, and binds us to a two-party system.

In the past 200 years, there have been 700 proposals introduced to Congress to change or eliminate the Electoral College. In fact, “There have been more proposals for Constitutional amendments on changing the Electoral College than on any other subject.” Try explaining the Electoral College to someone from another country and you’ll quickly see how crazy it is that it controls the outcome of our elections.

  1. Two-Party System

Gallup reported in 2014 that a majority of U.S. citizens (68 percent) felt that the two-party system was failing the American people since the two parties don’t represent our interests. A major Princeton study found that the U.S. government is more aptly described as an oligarchy, not a democracy, since most policies align with the 1 percent and not the general population. The two-party system, which serves that oligarchy, is a big part of the problem.

As Conor Lynch writes, the U.S. may well be ready to break out of the two-party system — but the parties have us in a stranglehold. With the rise in attention to two third-party candidates this election, it’s worth wondering whether this election may just be the tipping point.

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  1. Winner-take-all voting

Lynch points out that one reason why the two-party system remains in force is because of our system for vote tallying. Winner-take-all voting means that the candidate with the most votes wins. It seems simple, but it actually skews the system to favor the two parties.

As FairVote.org explains, ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, is an alternative vote tallying system that makes democracy more fair and functional. Ranked choice voting has a history of making elections more open and more balanced. Voters rank their choices so that if your first candidate does not win, then your vote goes to your second choice.

The system eliminates situations where voting for an underdog effectively means you are throwing your vote for the candidate you least like. It would allow you to vote Jill Stein #1, then Clinton #2, that way a vote for Stein would not mean a vote for Trump. Even more importantly, it encourages candidates to cultivate a broad, moderate base of support rather than intense, zealous supporters.

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  1. Redistricting/Gerrymandering

We focus a lot on how the 2010 Citizen’s United decision affected our democracy, but former Salon editor David Daley reminds us that 2010 also signaled the year that a new census radically changed voting districts. Daley’s book “details an effort by Republican strategists to put money and campaign resources into targeted state legislative races in key states in 2010, so Republicans could control the statehouses and control congressional redistricting.”

The result was a “radical GOP gerrymander imposed after the 2010 census on purplish states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina.”

Fair vote reports that, “In 2011, Republican lawmakers drew new district lines in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. In 2012, Democratic U.S. House candidates won more than Republican candidates in both states, but won only 9 of 31 seats.” In 2014 Republicans got 52 percent of the votes, but ended up with 57 percent of the seats in Congress. If we want to stop these trends, we will have to fight for redistricting drawn by independent commissions.

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  1. Voter Suppression

The suppression of voters takes many forms in our democracy. From Voter ID laws to purged voters to the disenfranchising of prisoners, our system has numerous ways that it restricts our ability to vote. As the ACLU reports, “Since 2008, states across the country have passed measures to make it harder for Americans — particularly black people, the elderly, students, and people with disabilities — to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot. These measures include cuts to early voting, voter ID laws, and purges of voter rolls.”

The simple fact that we don’t have automatic voter registration demonstrates the basic ways that we are inclined to limit access to voting. The Brennan Center for Justice explains that automatic voter registration is a simple and effective way to ensure that all eligible voters are able to exercise their rights. “Every citizen should have a fair and equal opportunity to get, and stay, registered to vote. Citizens must take the responsibility to vote, but government should do its part by clearing bureaucratic obstacles to the ballot box. Automatic voter registration would vastly improve American democracy.”

Since 1965 The Voting Rights Act protected minority voters at the polls, but in June 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key parts of the VRA and the result has been significant voter discrimination. VRA for Today explains that “Since the Supreme Court gutted the VRA in 2013, states and cities have enacted a tidal wave of voter discrimination laws intended to restrict the right to vote for people of color, people with disabilities, students and others.” Their site details a number of specific ways that voters have been suppressed by the 2013 ruling.

  1. Voting Suppression

It isn’t just hard to be registered to vote, it can be hard to actually do it once you are registered. U.S. voter turnout trails most developed countries. In the 2012 election, 53.6 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the U.S.  In comparison, 84.3 percent voted in the latest elections in Turkey.

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One way to increase turnout is to make it easier to cast a ballot. Because we vote on a Tuesday — a day when many of us have obligations, turnout is lower. If you have a shift job, for instance, it may be extremely difficult to vote.

To address this issue, Bernie Sanders has made a cause of advocating for Election Day to be a holiday. “In America, we should be celebrating our democracy and doing everything possible to make it easier for people to participate in the political process.”

We have other issues when it comes to being able to cast a ballot. While early voting has pros and cons, we now have a clear crisis over polling places. Arizona’s Maricopa country went from 200 polling places in 2012 to 60 this year, leading to extraordinary wait times for voters — and that is only one example.

The issues we saw in the primaries will only be exacerbated come November. “A Reuters survey found local governments in nearly a dozen, mostly Republican-dominated counties in Georgia have adopted plans to reduce the number of voting stations, citing cost savings and efficiency.”

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  1. Election Fraud

Election Justice USA filed an extensive report on the rampant election fraud during the primaries. They summarize a range of direct evidence of election fraud including voter suppression, registration tampering, illegal voter purging, and fraudulent or erroneous voting machine tallies. They also point to the evidence that the DNC colluded to smear Sanders and conspired to support Clinton.

The Hill reported on the various ways that the elections could easily be rigged. In one example, “A computer hacker showed CBS how to vote multiple times using a simple $15.00 electronic device.” Voting machine manipulation is one of the reasons why #ExitPollGate became such an issue during the primaries. Lee Camp has written extensively about why this is a valid concern.

  1. Corporate Media

Added to the various flawed pieces of the electoral system, the corporate media plays a big role in affecting election outcomes.  A report from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy analyzed news coverage of the 2016 presidential candidates in the year leading up to the primaries. The report documents the fact that major news outlets covered Trump at a level that was incommensurate with his experience, base of support and initial polling. They conclude that Trump is “the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee.”

The media has also played a role in affecting election results by calling races early and effectively suppressing turnout. Even worse, during the primaries the press repeatedly reported the superdelegate count as though those were votes that had already been cast. Then, on June 5, the Associated Press called the Democratic nomination for Clinton based solely on the interviewing of superdelegates, who were not set to cast their votes until the Democratic Convention on July 25.

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Given the fact that most voters get their information from the corporate media, these issues constitute a serious threat to our democracy.

  1. Voters

It’s not just the system and the media; it’s the actual voters themselves who are threatening the health of our democracy.  Political polarization is at an all-time high. It is so extreme that folks from opposing parties have absolutely no common ground or interest in compromise — a fact that hamstrings any productive democratic deliberation.

Add to that the increasing evidence that the U.S. public is uninformed, misinformed, or outright stupid. The bottom line is that we don’t just need to fix the system; we need to work harder to develop the public sphere of educated and engaged voters required for a democracy to thrive.

The 1948 Declaration of Human Rights maintains that everyone has the right to be represented by a government of their choice. It further stipulates that “this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures."

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So, if you thought our problem was a bad slate of candidates, well that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Until we address the system that fostered their rise, we can only expect things to get worse.


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, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics.

MORE FROM Sophia A. McClennen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Campaign Finance Election Fraud Elections 2016 Electoral College Gerrymandering Voter Suppression

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