Elections are supposed to have consequences. When countries establish electoral processes that are sufficiently free and functional to ascertain the clear will of the people—and when those votes are cast and counted in an election that draws a solid majority of eligible voters to the polls—that will should be expressed as something more than a New York Times headline or a Fox News alert. It should be expressed in leadership, law and governance.
That governance should be sufficient to address poverty, tame inequality and conquer injustice. And if outside forces thwart those initiatives, that government should challenge them on behalf of the common good. After all, if meaningful economic and social change cannot by achieved (or at the very least demanded) with a stroke of the ballot pen, then what is the point of an election?
Questions about the point of elections are common in the United States, where the political process has decayed rapidly in an era of money-drenched campaigns, narrowly-defined debates, exceptionally low turnout elections and gridlocked government. On the eve of the 2014 mid-term elections in the United States, Gallup polling found that the percentage of Americans who said they were “extremely motivated” to vote had fallen to 32 percent—from 50 percent in 2010. An analysis of the numbers by Gallup’s editor-in-chief suggested that Americans might “have reached the point where they don’t believe their vote for a specific person, of either party, is going to change much.”
In fairness to today’s candidates and parties, the challenge of coherent governing is as old as the American experiment. There is no question, however, that the problem has been exacerbated in recent years by an increasingly rigid system in which two parties compete not just for votes but for the contributions of a billionaire class of campaign donors who extract a price from politicians of both parties: subservience to the demands of political paymasters when it comes to setting tax rates, regulating banks and establishing budget priorities.
What the populists and progressives of a century ago referred to as “the money power” now games the system to assure that it is never disempowered. Governments may be focused and empowered by high-turnout presidential elections, but they are quickly unfocused and disempowered by low-turnout midterm elections. There is no question that discussions of democracy reforms must include proposals to eliminate an Electoral College that can place the loser of the popular vote in the White House, to redistricting practices that can place the party that loses the popular vote in congressional contests across the country in charge of the House of Representatives, to close the loophole that allows governors to fill US Senate vacancies by appointment, and to guarantee the right to vote and to have that vote counted.