One of the last things this country needs is yet another impassioned call for election reform. Another invective against Citizens United or another stern warning about restrictive voter-ID laws would be redundant. And we certainly don’t need to be reminded of the absurdity of the Electoral College or the corruptness of gerrymandering. Another essay of that sort would be akin to a doctor telling her terminally ill patient to watch the cholesterol.
No, the time is long past for such calls: Our democracy is in big trouble.
For nearly 200 years, we have defined the democratic character of our system through elections. We are an election-crazed nation, but momentous shifts—some building slowly over the last few decades and others emerging quickly—have distorted how elections are conducted and the impact they have on public policy.
Elections for federal office, in particular, no longer reflect the common good and too often produce results incompatible with our structure of government. Legal or behavioral changes will not save the patient. It’s time to embrace other avenues of political engagement.
The democratic character of American government has been an ongoing debate since its inception. Democratic impulses played a role in the drive for independence, to be sure, and the framers of our Constitution understood that the document would only be ratified if it reflected many of these principles. There was an explicit rejection of hereditary rule, and the Bill of Rights codified essential liberties—the basic ingredients of democratic engagement.
But these men also worried mightily about the “excesses of democracy” and sought to create a framework that would check popular impulses. James Madison’s rationale for a large, extended republic, the foremost issue during the ratification debate, was that it would curb popular factions and “enlarge and refine” the general will.
It is important to note, too, that neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights protected voting rights. States were left to define eligibility for themselves; some used property clauses; others, literacy qualifications and poll taxes; and still others employed religious tests. Subsequent amendments to the Constitution defined categories of citizens who could not be barred from the voting booth and outlawed the poll tax, but other qualifications, such as residency and identification requirements, were left up to the states.
We should not be surprised, then, that questions of popular sovereignty cast a shadow over the Republic during the early years. There were specific policy questions that defined the early conflicts between the Federalists and the Republicans, but the rancor of the late 1790s was very much grounded in a dispute over democratic principles. The Republicans rightfully denounced John Adams’s support of the Alien and Sedition Acts, for example, as a violation of what they thought they had put their lives on the line for in 1776. It is no stretch to argue that the election of 1800 was waged over whether the uprising against the crown would be viewed as a “revolution” or merely a “war for independence.”