“When you least expect it, you’re elected, you’re the star today.”
So went the theme song of Candid Camera. In 2016, for the fifth time in American history, a president was elected despite losing the popular vote — in this case by 2,868,686 votes. The history of disenfranchisement from voting in this country in modern times centers on the Electoral College, which by definition creates critical “swing states” and gives voters in clearly blue or red states little incentive to submit a ballot — certainly not in the midst if a pandemic. But the deficits of our democracy don’t stop there; the roots are deep, gnarly and far from pretty.
As presidential historians have made no secret that the covidiot currently collapsing the throne of democracy will occupy the caboose on the train of presidential rankings, despite some good competition, we needn’t fuss with lamenting the candid camera whose fish-eye lens manufactured and captured the fluke of Mark Burnett’s reality-show star. The poison isn’t just the boob tube, but our Constitution itself, which not only enshrined an electoral body born of mistrust of the popular vote, but also based that college on representation by both chambers of Congress; as each state, no matter the population, has but two Senators, simple math weights electors towards less populous states. It’s all dominoes: campaigns focus on swing states and the rest of us feel little heat to vote.
The democratic deficits don’t stop there, however. As our nation’s first voters were white-male property owners, our largest shift came with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, granting women the right to vote. But persons of color remain systemically disenfranchised, with Florida’s Governator starring in suppression central. Excitement is not yet apparent in Hispanic and Asian American communities, both of which had much lower-than-average voter turnout in 2008.
For African Americans, who may be energized by Black Lives Matter and Kamala Harris, turnout will face an intractable hurdle without a change in the laws: As of 2000 data, 13 percent of Black males were ineligible to vote due to felony conviction; moreover, in swing states such as Florida, that disenfranchisement rate reached 30 percent, trumping “hanging chads” as a factor.
Beyond race, demographics come into play in a big way. Young people don’t get excited by voting unless the candidates resemble them in the under-35 category, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which is not even constitutionally permissible for an American presidential candidate, even were it to be desirable. In a larger sense, democracy itself is not “sticky” for millennials as a political philosophy. In a 2018 study, only 30 percent of millennials agree that it is “essential” to live in a democracy, versus 72 percent of those born prior to the Second World War. This is scary stuff.
No wonder a wannabe Pinochet on his balcony can prey on bigotry and ignorance by offering himself as a voice for those who feel voiceless — the silent minority. It’s fertile ground: In a 2014 Princeton study contrasting the influence of “elite” special-interest lobbying with the influence of “ordinary” citizens, social scientists found that the United States more closely resembles an oligarchy than a true representative democracy, in that the average citizen has virtually no influence whatsoever on public policy. News flash — it’s all swamp.
In the century since women got the vote, though the absolute number of voting citizens increased, voting turnout has hovered within 10 percentage points of the slightly more than 60 percent we saw in 2008 and 2016. The good news, I suppose, is that there is a fertile field among eligible voters to shift even a calcified and inherently unpopular electoral college outcome. But smashed postal sorting machines and presidential candidates who poll higher by virtue of who they aren’t than by any great enthusiasm for them, on top of viral fears and the manifold means of voter suppression at the hands of Republican governors, mean that no poll is gospel and only a landslide on Nov. 3 will lead to instant karma. Pence, Trump’s fly-boy, couldn’t bring himself in the veep debate to promise peaceful transition. Al Gore’s signature move is ancient history to these impotentates fearing the onset of demographic oblivion.
While we are counting down the days, with millions casting unjustly maligned absentee ballots, there is more that we can do—every one of us, as individuals. Do you know anyone who might not vote? Help them obtain a mail ballot. Get them to a polling place. Convince an unenthusiastic or recalcitrant voter to step up. If each of us gets just one other person to vote, most especially, sad to say, in purple swing states, we can make a difference.
America, we aren’t e pluribus unum anymore. Out of one vote may emerge many better outcomes than this pandemic has bared. I vote, therefore I am.