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Our Fragile Representative Democracy and its Repair

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

By Ben Tafoya
November 16, 2020

There is an old saying for when the polls close on election day that goes, “It is all over but the shouting.” Perhaps never has that been more apt a description of the state of elections in the United States then in 2020. With the process of counting early and mail-in votes, the court challenges and a central figure with a not so firm purchase on the normal processes of democratic life, we are in perilous times. There are urgent fixes to make to our system more representative and less volatile for the future.

Despite 150 million of our fellow Americans voting in our presidential election with President-elect Biden receiving many millions more votes than President Trump, it is the votes of just a few tens of thousands, in a few specific states, that determine the outcome. The electoral college is our quadrennial game of chance where the will of the people, the popular vote, can be frustrated by an arcane 18th century system unlike that of anywhere else on earth. In 2000 and 2016, the presidential candidate that got the most popular votes lost the electoral college and hence the election. This year we came very close to the same outcome. We were warned about this eventuality in 1970 during the last great debate to abolish the electoral college. It is time to move ahead with a constitutional amendment or at least the Interstate Compact for a National Popular Vote.

The persistence of colonies and geographic disenfranchisement for more than a century (Puerto Rico) or two (Washington DC) leaves a fracture in our democracy where the capability of contributing to the national election is dependent on where one stands on election day. With the recent, albeit narrow, passage of a referendum in favor of statehood in Puerto Rico and the decades long push for the same for the District of Colombia, both entities should be granted statehood with the associated powers of home rule and voting representation in Congress. While the Senate can see modest reform by the elimination of the filibuster, making the institution more representative of the people by enlarging the body and eliminating colonial status for millions will improve our democracy.

Fundamentally our representative democracy is harmed by the lack of recognition that voting is a fundamental human right. This means that access to the ballot should not vary based on whims of the court and technical definitions of when and how votes can be cast and counted. We should then give life to the 14th, 15th and 24th amendments to the constitution.

The 14th Amendment, in addition to the equal protection clause, also involves a mandate that states provide equal access to the franchise to all inhabitants over 18 years of age, except for reasons of participation in rebellion or crime. This mandate applies to federal and state elective office. The language implies that violation of the clause would result in less representation in Congress for offending states. The House took a major step in this direction with the passage of HR1 in 2019. Among the reforms are actions to restore the Voting Rights Act and put in place redistricting commissions to lessen the scourge of gerrymandering.

The 15th Amendment protects the right to vote against discrimination based on race or color. The 24th Amendment eliminates the poll tax. Yet wide variations exist in access to voting based on voter identification laws, placement of polling places and drop boxes, mail service and legal history. The fight over re-enfranchisement of former felons in Florida illustrates the inconsistencies very well. The Amendments give Congress the authority to act to enforce their meaning. Yet we wait for action. The good news is that our citizens persevere and come out to vote in greater and greater numbers.

We also need to recognize that democracy is not just about voting. Democracy is a process of giving voice and agency to all people in society. This means rights in the workplace, rights in society as well as rights in the ballot box. The political division in our country is not partisan bickering with fights over the spoils of office but rather struggle over the emergence of the democratic rights of all in our society. The hope is that no longer will society be dominated by the few depriving the many of their humanity whether it be affecting the workplace or how they love or view their sexuality or express their democratic rights. This is the arc of the moral universe spoken about so eloquently by Dr. King.

The great Leonard Cohen expressed it poetically:

“Ring the bells that still can ring;
Forget your perfect offering; There is a crack, a crack in everything;That’s how the light gets in.”

We see the cracks and we have a light to shine, otherwise we could stare once more into an abyss of our own making.


Author: Ben Tafoya is an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University where he earned his doctorate. 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 Twitter as @policyben . All opinions and mistakes are his alone.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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