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American Democracy and Its Continued Challenges

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ben Tafoya
January 23, 2023

Two years have passed since the insurrection at the US Capitol tried to derail the certification of President’s Biden electoral college victory. Since that time over 900 people have been arrested for various crimes related to the attack. Lawsuits have been filed and a wide-ranging US House investigation shared jaw dropping details of the events surrounding the infamous day. As dramatic and traumatic as those events are there are other major issues challenging the proper functioning of our representative democracy which feeds into this disfunction.

As I wrote in November 2020, “There are urgent fixes to make to our system more representative and less volatile for the future.” But since then, some actions at the state level, and the lack of action at the federal level have only made things worse. Restrictions on the franchise have increased, money invested in campaigns has continued to climb, midterm turnout dropped and (importantly for public administrators) there is continued pressure on election officials and volunteer poll workers by those that think elections are rigged.

Congress has taken a step to head off further controversy over how the electoral vote count should work by including the electoral count reform as part of the budget bill passed in December. It raises the threshold for the number of members who need to object to force consideration of a state’s votes. It clarifies the role of the Vice-President as a ceremonial one and charges Governors with the responsibility to send the proper slate of delegates to head off moves to allow for fake electors.

Beyond that, the federal progress is slim. Despite Democratic control of both houses the issue of statehood for the District of Columbia died in the Senate. No action was taken to guarantee the right to vote or negate state laws that discourage voting because of requirements for identification that require cost.

At the state level, the picture is cloudy. Some states increased the opportunities to vote through an increase in early voting or vote-by-mail opportunities. Others took action to restrict the same. Automatic voter registration has expanded to 19 states. While some states actively discriminate against college students when it comes to voter registration still others require voting precincts on campuses to ease voting.

The 2020 presidential election saw record number of voters. Election efforts were funded in part through the pandemic era CARES Act and from third-party foundations. However, that support ended, and the 2022 elections were once again a state and local fiscal responsibility.

Beyond the institutional arrangements, one of the biggest threats to democracy comes from election denial. What was for generations a routine process of counting votes and declaring winners has become fraught with controversy over machines, software, voting procedures and recording of results. There is growing concern regarding threats against election officials. These attacks are largely due to election outcomes that some do not like.

These efforts have caused an exodus of election workers and volunteers. The pressure from deniers has also had an impact on certifying results when some counties or localities refuse to report official results in order to delay or derail the entire election. This requires courts to act to declare elections as final. Courts ordering election officials to certify results furthers the pressure on the process, particularly after primary elections as officials try to put together general election ballots.

Last year’s midterms were burdened by thousands of public records requests where petitioners are looking for details on software and voting records contained in machines. Others are pushing for hand counts of ballots. But in the United States, we elect so many different offices at each election, with complex ballots, hand counts are slow and cumbersome. Whereas in the United Kingdom it works for parliamentary elections where ballots are more limited but the counts still take significant time. Just this last week a county in Pennsylvania did a hand count of ballots from the 2020 presidential election.

In part the election controversies are driven by the closeness of the political divide in the country. The slim US House majority was decided by less than 8,000 votes across the five closest races. The Senate majority was also provided by a relatively small margin. Combined with the broad policy differences between the parties, the stakes in elections are high. Yet a consensus of what makes our representative democracy legitimate is necessary to rollback these intrusions.

Democracy depends on broad participation of the population in elections and public affairs. Actions to limit the voice of the people threaten the legitimacy of the democracy. With a presidential election already underway, and a pending Supreme Court decision threatening to upset elections, it is as urgent as ever that we get our institutional arrangements and acceptance of democratic norms in alignment for broad participation. With the electoral college our 2024 election could be decided by small numbers of votes across a small number of states leading to more rancor, or worse.


Author: Dr. Ben Tafoya is an adjunct faculty member at both Northeastern University and Wentworth Institute in Boston. Ben is the author of a chapter on social equity and public administration in the recently published volume from Birkdale, Public Affairs Practicum. He can be reached at [email protected] or Mastodon @[email protected] . All opinions and mistakes are his alone.

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