After DC protests, are your politicians representing you or themselves?
Ten months after the Presidential election and cries from Trump and Republicans of electoral foul play, wrangling over voter laws show no sign of ending. In response to legislative proposals by Republican-led states to restrict voter access, Washington was last week the centre of large protests against these moves.
Wherever you stand on this, let's take a wider look at what is becoming a worrying global trend. Ask yourself this simple quiz question - What is democracy?
Here are your choices:
A) a form of government in which the people either have the authority to choose their governing legislators, or the authority to decide on legislation.
B) a strategy used to influence the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing specific groups of people from voting.
Your view on this may differ depending on where in the world you are and the regime under which you live, but I imagine you went with Answer A.
The descriptions above cover “democracy” (a) and “voter suppression” (b). If we delve a little deeper into the word “democracy” itself, the term comes the Greek words “demos” (people), and “kratos” (rule), therefore:
Democracy = people rule
But is this the reality of modern societies that claim to be democratic? Let’s look at some examples and then consider what this means in your country.
Problem 1 — what’s so wrong with First Past the Post?
You can take your pick on how many “official” countries there are across the globe. If we go by the view of the United Nations, in 2021 there are 195 sovereign states.
The most common national electoral system used across these countries is Proportional Representation, which is used by 80 states. No electoral system is perfect and they all have benefits and downsides. But let’s focus on one that’s more flawed than most, but still used by 62 separate nations and 18 other states in the past — First Past the Post (FPTP).
The FPTP system is in operation in both the US and the UK and while supporters praise its simplicity, ease of counting votes and that it’s simple to understand, there are fundamental flaws.
In the US, let’s consider the 2016 Presidential Election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
We all know Trump won, claiming 306 Electoral College votes compared to Clinton’s 232. The first past the post target here is 270 votes. Despite this “landslide” victory in the Electoral College, Clinton polled 65.84 million votes against Trump’s 62.98 million.
How about in the UK as a comparison?
In the UK parliament, there are 650 seats up for grabs with the first party to get 326 — or first past the post — becoming a majority government. This takes no account of the actual number of votes cast for the winning side.
If we take the UK’s 2005 General Election as a case study. The Labour Party secured 355 seats, or 55%, ensuring a parliamentary majority, and no need to haggle with other parties to give them support for their manifesto pledges. In actual votes, their share was only 36%. Or put another way, two-thirds of the electorate did not vote for the party that formed the government.
First Past the Post doing its thing again! Is this democracy in action where the “people rule”? And don’t forget almost a third of the countries around the world use this system.
Problem 2 — Voter suppression: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”
George Orwell wrote Animal Farm in 1945, but the quote above is as relevant today as it was then.
Under the FPTP system, there is already the potential for an unrepresentative result. Now add to this legislative plans and challenges taking place in both the US and the UK.
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
The US — the “land of the free” — must do democracy right? The US Constitution states “voting is a right and a privilege”.
Well, we saw how FPTP can skew the will of the people in presidential elections. What about beyond that?
Since President Biden’s inauguration in January, and amidst Republican attempts to claim voter fraud and that the “election was stolen”, the GOP has put forward over 400 voter suppression bills across the country. Analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice noted that by 21 June, “17 states enacted 28 new laws that restrict access to the vote” and that “at least 61 bills with restrictive provisions are moving through 18 state legislatures.”
A recent report by Newsweek quotes Pennsylvania Democratic Senator Bob Casey’s view on Republican-led “Voter Suppression Bills”.
“At its core, we should just be blunt about this, at its core, these voter suppression bills are about white supremacy.”
Professor Noam Chomsky, an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, and political activist, echoes this view on white supremacy and voting rights restrictions. He believes Trump was the GOP’s “great white hope” and current activities continue “to believe in the idea of a stolen election and to support Trump-led GOP efforts to stamp critical race theory out of schools and restrict voting rights.”
Whether you hold with this view — which I do — you cannot dispute the avalanche of voter suppression legislation. Again, there are similar arguments to those in the UK about the need to minimise voter fraud — the unproven conspiracy theory still put forward to explain Trump’s election defeat.
Also, like the UK example, is that the restrictions and “tightening up” of voting laws is the belief that non-white voters will be the ones who will find it more difficult to vote and hardest hit. Historical data shows these groups are also less likely to vote Republican. Can you see the picture and motivations emerging?
Is this democracy in action? Is this what you voted for?
In the UK, the government announced its plan to “strengthen the integrity of the UK and protect our democracy” through a proposed Elections Bill. The essence of this planned legislation is to move from the current approach where a member of the public provides their name and address and their polling card to cast a vote, to needing to show photographic ID.
On the surface, this sounds sensible and reasonable until you consider two other factors.
The UK’s Electoral Commission states the country has “very low levels of proven electoral fraud, and voters should feel confident about their vote.”
Critics of this move, such as Open Democracy, point out that “in 2015 it was estimated that 3.5 million UK citizens do not have access to photo ID, while 11 million don’t own a passport or a driver’s licence. Unsurprisingly, those voters are disproportionately poor, disadvantaged and non-white.”
In May this year, the cross-parliament Joint Committee on Human Rights heard evidence on whether this new legislation protects or suppresses voters. Amongst the report of this hearing, it notes:
In its 2020 report on Black People, Racism and Human Rights the Joint Committee on Human Rights noted the potentially racial discriminatory impact of the Government proposals to require a form of photographic ID in UK Parliamentary elections in Great Britain and local elections in England.
While there is support for all political parties across social grades and ethnicities, research by the Runnymede Trust found that 68% of Black and minority ethnic people often support the Labour Party — or “the opposition”. Add into this the numbers provided by Open Democracy and it is clear to see the bulk of people at risk of not having the form of identification needed to vote in future are less likely to vote for the current government.
If we also take this alongside the UK “Policing Bill”, another flagship piece of government legislation working its way through parliament, the picture is even bleaker. Amnesty International has this to say about the bill.
In its current form, the bill represents an enormous and unprecedented extension of policing powers which would effectively give both police and Government ministers the power to ban, limit or impose undue restrictions on peaceful protests on the grounds that they might be ‘noisy’ or cause ‘annoyance’. It also extends police powers already used disproportionately against Black people, and severely restricts the right to roam.
So, a flawed system in FPTP to begin with, the potential for massive disenfranchisement of voters who don’t support the current government, and severe restrictions on the “right to protest”.
So, I’ll ask again. Is this democracy in action? Is this what you voted for?
Thank God I don’t live in the US or UK then!
While these are high-profile examples of democracy being abused and suppressed through changes to voting laws, these sorts of tactics are not unique to the US and UK.
The International Politics & Society Journal turned the spotlight on several “populist and illiberal governments” last year. Their analysis notes that over 17 million EU citizens live and work in other EU countries but are eligible to vote in their homelands. Further, they state that:
Most of these intra-EU migrants are younger and more educated than the European average and hail from economically weaker countries that are more prone to populist jingoism.
It’s no surprise then that in countries such as Hungary, Italy, Poland and Greece — where populist governments are in power — that these regimes have made it more difficult for expatriates to vote.
You don’t need me to explain why this is the case, but the parallels with voter suppression in the US and UK are clear.
In South America, there are similar tales to tell as witnessed by recent elections in Peru and Ecuador. On both occasions, electoral observers from the Progressive International were on the ground to fight for the rights of these citizens for free and fair elections against authoritarian regimes.
A month after the Peruvian election, and the result and future are still in doubt. The official verdict gave victory to the left-leaning candidate, Pedro Castillo over his conservative rival, Keiko Fujimori. Supporters of Fujimori have been claiming fraud ever since. Let’s see how long it takes before there’s talk of a military coup in Peru!
Does all this sound familiar? Different country, different time, but straight out of the Trump-supporters playbook.
But I voted — what else can I do?
“Democracy” comes in many flavours and means very different things to particular countries, parties and politicians. No electoral system is ever likely to be perfect, but what we are seeing more and more of is the eroding of voting rights under the guise of “democratic electoral reform”.
I’ll leave you with one final thought before you consider whether you live in a democratic society.
In 1929, the world experienced the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. Unrest was already taking root in many societies following the First World War, but this environment allowed extremist regimes — on the right and left — to either come to or consolidate their power (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Stalinist Russia). Voter suppression was a reality in these countries, and we know the path that led to 1939.
In 2008, we saw the “global financial crisis” — the 21st century’s 1929 moment. In a 2014 journal article, author Antonis Klapsis was already comparing these two incidents.
The global financial crisis, which started in the US in 2007–8 and very soon affected the whole world, proved to be a turning point that boosted political extremism in Europe… As in the 1930s, these developments triggered a political reaction. It is definitely no coincidence that since 2008 far-right political parties have generally gained significant ground in national as well as European Parliament elections.
While there are many reasons for the rise of extremism, this often goes hand in hand with authoritarianism and the eroding of democracy.
Remember: Democracy = people rule
If this doesn’t sound like what is happening in your country, the next time you go to vote be careful what you wish for and think hard about what your politicians claim to be doing “in your name”.
Then ask yourself: “Is this democracy in action?”
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