American Democratic Institutions Are Fraying

There was much to celebrate in the results of Nova Scotia’s municipal elections. The upcoming American elections are more problematic.

Voter turnout was much improved over the traditionally low levels in municipal elections. In Halifax, the availability of multiple ways to vote, including electronic, led to a 40% increase in the number of votes cast.

Women candidates were big winners. Amanda MacDougall bested incumbent Cecil Clarke and four other men to become mayor of Cape Breton Regional Municipality. The re-elected Mayor of the Municipality of the District of Lunenburg and eight of the ten councillors will be women. For the first time ever, half of Halifax’s councillors will be women.

There were many fresh faces seeking office. CBRM had 49 candidates for its twelve districts. There were 83 candidates in Halifax’s 16 districts; two of them had twelve candidates.

All of this was a welcome distraction from the goings-on in the republic to the south, where the foundations of democracy are at risk.

The Republicans have a problem. Many of their core voters are rural and almost all are white. Both demographics represent shrinking shares of the population. The Republican response is to seek ways of repressing participation by other voters.

In some states, there are onerous requirements for government-issued identification documents, such as passports or drivers licenses, which can be expensive to obtain.

In Wisconsin, the Republican legislature voted to restrict advance voting to the 14 days before election day. This is compressing the surge in advance voting happening elsewhere because of COVID. Wisconsin currently has one of the highest rates of new infections in the United States.

In North Carolina, piles of mailed ballots that need correcting were sat on by election officials rather than sending them back for correction.

In Texas, voters can only register by mail or in person, one of only ten states to not have an online system. Access is tightly limited, and the process is intentionally cumbersome.

The Governor issued an order that drop-off points for mail-in ballots should be limited to one per county. Texas has 254 counties, mostly rural. The average population is 118,000.

Harris County, which includes Houston, has 4.7 million residents, including large numbers of Blacks and Hispanics. It had created eleven drop-off points, which were reduced to one.

The federal appeals court panel upheld the decision on the grounds that people could vote by mail.

It is not a coincidence that all three judges on the panel are Trump appointees, which points to a second big problem with American democracy—the politicization of the judiciary. This is highly visible when, as now, a new Supreme Court justice is being appointed, but there are hundreds of other judiciary positions filled by presidential nomination and Senate confirmation.

A primary qualification for nominees has been their fidelity to conservative beliefs, especially around women’s reproductive rights.

A related problem is the politicization of the public service. The post office is headed by a prominent Trump donor who has sought to cut budgets, thereby threatening the on-time arrival of mailed-in ballots.

Attorney General William Barr ordered prosecutors to reduce the recommended sentence for longtime Trump supporter Roger Stone. He asked courts to annul the conviction of Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Disgusted prosecutors have quit in protest.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another Trump loyalist, has favoured cronies over skilled diplomats in his appointments.

A fourth problem, in this case for the Republicans, is the excessive influence of money, vast amounts of which are being spent on this election. The population of Maine is 1.32 million, a little less than Manitoba. As of October 6th, Democratic challenger Sara Gideon had raised $62 million, most of it from out-of-state donors. This dwarfed incumbent Republican Susan Collins’ $22 million. Democratic spending in the 14 most competitive states exceeds $340 million.

The presidential campaigns will spend billions, which is supplemented by political action committees. Democratic supporter Michael Bloomberg pledged to independently spend $100 million in support of Biden’s Florida campaign.

Fifthly, there is transparent gerrymandering of constituencies, of which both parties are guilty. In North Carolina, Republicans were able to draw a map that had them win ten out of thirteen congressional seats with less than half the votes.

Finally, broadcast and print media have become ardently partisan. Commentators on Fox News have nothing but praise for everything Trump does while nurturing conspiracy theories about the Democrats. The New York Times opinion page appears to be a platform for disseminating Democratic thought. Voters must look hard for reporting that is judiciously fact-based, which used to be the hallmark of quality journalism.

Trump’s trashing of democratic norms and his conscious effort to be divisive has made all this worse. It would be wrong to assume that a Biden win would undo all the harm. The Democratic institutions are deeply scarred and need a long period of healing. Conversely, another four years of Trump would cement much of the damage already done.


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