I recently attended a state election conference whose purpose was to discuss the new laws passed during the year. The event was scheduled just days after the final certifications and reports for the 2016 Presidential election were completed.
I could not help but notice the profusion of congratulatory sentiments (self and otherwise) expressed for “surviving” the election year. While such congratulations are routinely offered after elections, these expressions seemed more numerous, more heartfelt and were offered in a more weary tone. I admit that I offered and received my share of congratulations but, at a point, I caught myself wondering about the practice.
Since when did mere survival of an election become the basis of compliments and praise? What a low standard of success we hold ourselves to. The only endeavor in which I have engaged where mere survival is the standard of success is armed combat.
While individual election administrators and organizations may have survived the surreal election year of 2016, the same may not be true of the institutions that underpin American democracy. Can we, or will we be able to, congratulate our election institutions for surviving as well?
I have done a quick analysis of the health of our democratic institutions and the symptoms are distressing. The Voting Rights Act and federal oversight/enforcement has been eroded by the Shelby decision resulting in scores of states passing anti-fraud reform intended to suppress the vote for the avowed purpose of reducing Democratic turnout. Congressional neglect and even hostility to the two federal agencies that oversee any aspect of elections, the Election Assistance Commission and the Federal Election Commission, has left them toothless and largely meaningless in the conduct of elections.
The reasoning offered by Senate leaders for their unprecedented refusal to even consider filling the vacancy on the Supreme Court is, itself, an attack on American political and electoral legitimacy. The notion that an unknown future President has more constitutional and political authority to appoint a new justice than a sitting elected president is frightening. The political boundaries of state and federal representatives were redrawn in 2011 by Republican controlled states to guarantee Republican majorities in Congress and state legislatures for an entire decade. The populist agenda of reform and change (draining the swamp) is directly contradicted by the re-election of over 90% of the incumbent members of Congress of both parties.
The credibility and utility of the Electoral College is also in question because of the frequent disparity between the popular vote and electoral vote and potentially unconstitutional restrictions on how the electors may cast their vote. It is difficult for most Americans, who don’t remember their 8th grade civics class, to understand why the winner is not the person receiving the most votes as is the case in every other election from dog-catcher to US Senate.
The baseless accusations of a candidate, prior to the election, that officials have rigged the election and the system against that candidate is a direct attack on the integrity of all elections. The subsequent cynical confession that the candidate did not care anymore because he won mocks the credibility of the original accusations and the intelligence of voters. The calls for election observers and enforcers to make sure that only the right people vote harkens to a nascent third world country experimenting with democracy for the first time.
One might consider the media a democratic institution which is also under attack; however I believe the media to be a complicit actor in the weakening of our institutions by covering the election as a horse race. By repeatedly taking the bait of provocative statements and personal attacks media decision makers shifted focus and resources away from informative coverage of issues and positions. The media was ripe to be duped and manipulated by the Russians, wiki-leaks and FBI Director Comey which may have changed the outcome of the election.
The basic inability of many Americans, on the left and the right, to distinguish between fake and real news and the propensity of voters to live in echo chambers are further symptoms the poor condition of our democracy. Lest this post appear to be a condemnation only of the right, the toxicity of the left’s identity politics over principles further corrodes out institutions by pitting one identity against another. Post-election claims of disenfranchisement of voters due to provisional voting by progressives contradicts the progressive and enfranchising purpose of provisional voting. Similarly, frivolous demands for recounts when there is no possibility of changing the outcome cheapen and demean the process and election officials.
The very features of our democratic system that give legitimacy to the outcome of the electoral process might be in jeopardy—not because of the actions of a single candidate or party. The jeopardy is real as the left and the right have demonstrated the ability and willingness to attack our institutions for their own gain. Hopefully this is an anomaly of the 2016 election cycle and not a vision of the future.
Stand by for more….