Every applicant for US citizenship is required to take a test, and every question on the current test is drawn from the same master list of 100 questions. Many are eminently reasonable (“Who is the President of the United States today?”); others are somewhat trivial (“Who said, ‘Give me liberty or give me death’?”). One reads like a discussion question from a fifth-grade history book, the kind with no right answer: “What is the most important right granted to U.S. citizens?”
According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, there is a right answer–the “right to vote.” And though the Constitution contains no affirmative right to vote (only barriers to disenfranchisement on the grounds of factors like race or sex), this is hardly an incoherent response. Suffrage is obviously crucial to democracy. However, the question and its presence on the citizenship test implies more than that–a nation with a deep, practical and well-thought-out commitment to suffrage. But the United States is no such nation. Its deficiencies on this front are complex and bewildering; a more honest and interesting exam question would be, “Do all citizens truly enjoy the right to vote?”
In Stealing Democracy, Spencer Overton, a law professor at George Washington University, invokes the metaphor of “the matrix” to convey how the electoral landscape is dominated by a “collection of ever-changing rules and practices employed by various partisans and bureaucrats.” It plays host to trickeries that “often exclude particular voters, enhance the power of certain politicians, and advance specific policy preferences.” Overton’s fervent hope is that we can remake the matrix “so that it more fairly empowers all voters rather than simply privileging the insiders who know how to manipulate it.”
The metaphor (a reference to the sci-fi flick The Matrix) is a touch corny, but overall Stealing Democracy lends argumentative and evidentiary rigor to liberal conventional wisdom on a host of electoral matters: voter ID laws (bad), multilingual ballots (good), electronic voting machines (bad, so far), enfranchisement of released felons (good, as agreed upon by 80 percent of Americans and every democracy except Armenia). This is, of course, valuable work. Of broader value, however, is the instructive mixture of pessimism, pragmatism and hope with which Overton approaches democratic reform. Stealing Democracy is no vague antistate (or antimatrix, or whatever) “power to the people” exhortation. Overton dreams big, but his ultimate recommendations are, given the scope of the problem, quite modest. They inspire without being vague or sweeping–and are all the more compelling for it.
Overton’s pessimism stems from his conviction that wherever elections take place, there is a nearly innate “propensity of self-interested politicians to enact rules that benefit themselves instead of the electorate.” Of course, there is no universal proof for such a premise, and that’s fine. Any intelligent discussion of election systems should proceed as if the premise might be true. Plus, Overton cites a flood of piecemeal evidence suggesting it is true, including California’s 2001 bipartisan redistricting scheme, which reduced its number of competitive US House, State Senate and State Assembly seats from forty-four to seventeen (out of 153); the recent redrawing of House districts nationwide such that 98 percent of incumbents retained their seats in 2004; the admission in 2003 by then-Alabama Republican Party chairman Marty Connors that his party is opposed to restoring released felons’ voting rights “because felons don’t tend to vote Republican.” Perhaps this is why elections in 75 percent of democracies are run or supervised by judges or independent officials, and why almost all countries with single-representative voting districts leave redistricting to independent commissions. Overton wishes we would join the democratic world.