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How the American Electoral System is Causing its Crisis of Democracy

More than any US election in recent memory, the 2020 election appears to be both a functional and spiritual failure of a democratic election. Issues this election have ranged from Republican leadership making baseless accusations of fraudulent absentee voting, to attempts to arbitrarily throw out thousands of ballots, to the President threatening states with lawsuits over the election results before most voting has even happened. It would be easy to blame these issues entirely on an incredibly divisive president, who has made it clear he holds little to no respect for the democratic process. However, the problems are far more entrenched than that. There is widespread disquiet at the prospect of the electoral college swinging the result of the election away from the popular vote for the third time in twenty years. Further unease with the system is found in voters from “safe states” who feel disenfranchised as their votes are held in low regard by campaigns. These problems are not just a sign of the times, but an indictment of the American electoral system.

One of the great advantages of democracy is that it is granted legitimacy based on the virtues of the system, as opposed to models like technocracy where the legitimacy of who holds power is based on the competency of the particular government. Although the actions of those in power can still be delegitimized by other values such as liberty or equality, democracy derives its legitimacy from abstract values rather than successful governance. While America heralds itself as the leader of democracy worldwide, the truth is that the US is one of the least “democratic” democracies among developed countries. That is, that the system of “one person, one vote” has been obfuscated to an extremely high degree. Due to the varied priorities across the expansive American landmass, the founding fathers fearing colonial-like domination of disparate regions, and ambition to perfect representative democracy, using inspiration from the great political philosophers of the time, the safeguards and conditions placed on democracy became incredibly complex. With this complexity, came politicization of the democratic system.

From the presence of ‘electors’, to partisan judiciaries, to comparatively larger barriers to enfranchisement, it has become embedded in the American consciousness that not just the outcome of elections, but the structure of elections themselves is inherently political. This is an inevitable consequence of a system requiring such constant fine tuning as the American one. This constant modification of the US electoral system by political rather than bureaucratic bodies has shifted the evaluation of the system away from generalized democratic ideals towards specifically US-centric values. For example, when it is asserted that measures need to be put in place to ensure the heavier concentrations of voters in cities cannot outweigh the more dispersed populations in rural areas, a judgement is being made that this moral, rather than practical, consideration can constrain democracy. These various measures have slowly eroded the sanctity of democracy within the US and has legitimized many of the harmful partisan problems facing it now. This has meant issues such as discriminatory voter ID laws are justified by appealing to worries about non-citizens voting, which is seen as a much graver offence in the US, where voting is not a way of making your voice heard, but of participating in an electoral system that seeks to do more than just function democratically.

The American democracy is often decried for being unbearably complex. This has very serious implications for its legitimacy. For it to function in its current state, it requires governmental oversight and intervention, which erodes the nonpartisan nature of the electoral system. The US needs to seriously overhaul its electoral system, reshaping it into something that can remain genuinely nonpartisan, if it is ever to be able to truly count itself a modern representative democracy.

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