Democracy Spring and the US Voting Matrix: How Much of the Electoral Process Is Illusory?

(Courtesy: Peter Callahan / Democracy Spring)Protesters with Democracy Spring demonstrate against money in politics. (Courtesy: Peter Callahan / Democracy Spring)

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The parallel Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening mobilizations wrapped their week of sit-ins protesting the corrosive influence of money in politics and voter suppression at the US Capitol on Monday, tallying more than 1,400 arrests.

Launching with a 10-day march from Philadelphia to Washington, DC, the movement hosted rallies, speakers and teach-ins last week, along with lobbying members of Congress. The protests broke the record for the most nonviolent arrests at the Capitol in a single week, culminating Monday with arrests of leaders from the civil rights, labor and environmental movements.

NAACP president Cornell Brooks, Communication Workers of America president Chris Shelton and Greenpeace executive director Annie Leonard were among those who helped lead the Democracy Awakening mobilization on Monday, which also aimed to pressure Republicans to confirm President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, to the Supreme Court.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

“This is a moment where we are at a crisis point in our democracy. This is a moment where we enter the first presidential election in 50 years, a more than half-century, without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act,” Brooks said during a press call before his arrest. “This is a moment where we have the votes of citizens suppressed and stolen before the election, and the votes of legislators bought and sold after the election.”

The protests demonstrate the public’s demand for deeper participation in the nation’s electoral process during an election cycle that will be the most expensive in US history, and in which, for the first time in a presidential election year, 17 states have new voting restrictions in place. Those restrictions have already disenfranchised millions of people — many of them in New York City, where Tuesday’s bungled Primary Day sparked an investigation into the city’s Board of Elections, after widespread reports that voters experienced problems in accessing polls or found that they were wrongly removed from voter rolls. New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office reported 125,000 voters in Brooklyn were told they were not on the rolls Tuesday.

New York’s primary contest proceeded without early voting or “excuse-only” absentee balloting. Plus, prospective voters who had not previously registered to vote were out of luck. The state’s registration deadline closed before any presidential candidate even had the chance to begin campaigning there, and independent voters had to change their party registrations last October to become eligible to vote in this week’s closed party primaries.

“This is a moment where we are at a crisis point in our democracy.”

These are only a small sample of the obstacles that make up today’s matrix of voting barriers that render even the limited foundation of the United States’ supposed representative “constitutional republic” rather unrepresentative of its populace. Nascent movements like Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening seek to challenge and transcend these obstacles.

Some of Democracy Spring’s participants have experienced an intersection of these barriers themselves, and spoke with Truthout about their frustrations with the limits of the US electoral process as it continues to play out this year. As people who have been disenfranchised by state rules and as voters who have successfully cast a ballot this primary season, their experiences reveal the systemic erosion of the representative process in the United States — whether you’re inclined to call it a democracy or a republic.

Since many of the barriers to voting are covered separately in the news, it’s hard to get a picture of the US’s full matrix of disenfranchisement. It’s time to examine all of them as a comprehensive set of problems that exist simultaneously for many voters and non-voters alike. Let’s start at the beginning of the voting process — becoming an informed voter and deciding on a candidate.

(Courtesy: Peter Callahan / Democracy Spring)(Courtesy: Peter Callahan / Democracy Spring)

Manufacturing Suspense: The Media as an Electoral Filter

It’s hard to discern a candidate’s particular political positions and how they compare with their opponents’ by watching major television news networks. This election cycle’s primary debates have broken records for cable networks ratings, but have been considered by some media historians to be among the least substantive debates in US history.

Close to 6 million citizens nationwide are prohibited from voting due to felony convictions.

Major media conglomerates use these ratings to sell advertisements, and this year’s incredible surge in revenue generation may have a damaging effect on the higher ethics of political journalism in the longer term, as moderators may continue to seek “titillating” and entertaining exchanges between candidates that reflect the kind of personal barbs we’ve seen on the debate stage this cycle and which have boosted the networks’ profits.

Beyond trying to discern a major party candidate’s positions, the media establishment acts as a barrier to the public’s knowledge of third-party candidates by censoring and limiting coverage of them entirely. Third-party candidates like the Green Party’s Jill Stein have mostly been ignored by the major media conglomerates and are not granted a presence on the debate stage.

With a major media paradigm that spends very little time on the substance of candidates’ positions and a great deal of time on their personal attacks, the media establishment presents its own kind of filter on the public’s experience of a US election.

In any case, once a voter’s decision is reached, the next step is registering to vote.

Eligibility and Registration

To be eligible to register to vote in the United States, you must be a documented citizen. In most states, you must be at least 17 or 18 years of age, and lastly, in a handful of states, you must lack a previous felony conviction. This last point excludes millions of US citizens, such as Paul Heroux, a small business owner in Orlando, Florida.

Heroux marched every step of the way from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia to Washington, DC, but decided not to take part in the mass sit-ins at the Capitol due to his status as a “veteran of the Bureau of Prisons system.” Heroux’s struggle with drug addiction resulted in a five-year prison sentence, which he finished in October 2009, only to learn upon his release that he had been stripped of his right to vote due to a law passed in his state during the Reconstruction era — one of the many explicitly racist and reactionary laws of the time.

The state of Florida has the country’s largest number of disenfranchised citizens. In 2010, more than 1.5 million people lost the right to cast a ballot, according to the Sentencing Project. Close to 6 million citizens nationwide are prohibited from voting due to felony convictions.

“The whole thing with these superdelegates is that they allow the establishment to quell insurgency with Sanders’ campaign.”

“What I’m fighting for isn’t rights restoration; it’s rights recognition,” Heroux told Truthout. “You never stop having rights, and one of the things that’s happening in Democracy Spring is the recognition that voting is a right like freedom of expression … that should be jealously guarded.”

Before one can even attempt to navigate the process of casting a ballot in any US election, they must be granted the right to do so by the state in which they reside, and Heroux is part of a category of people who are affected by the laws passed by their representatives, yet who do not have the right to vote for them.

Meanwhile, even those who are eligible to vote face major obstacles. They must shoulder the responsibility of registering themselves, and must navigate a registration system that is “ill-suited for the 21st century,” according to a 2012 Brennan Center for Justice report.

According to that report, at least 51 million eligible Americans are not registered to vote, with a disproportionate number being people of color. The most recent US Census data available shows that 37 percent of eligible Black people and 48 percent of eligible Latinos are not registered to vote.

And not everyone wants more people to vote: Some states, like Florida and Texas, have even passed laws imposing restrictions on voter registration drives (though courts intervened to negate those limitations).

The restrictions pile up: In many states, you must be a resident of the county you are living in, and must have resided at an address within the county for at least 30 days before the election. Some counties put that number higher, making new residents unable to vote for the representatives whose decisions may affect them directly.

While many citizens remain ineligible to vote, Kiernan Colby, who was arrested last weekend during the Democracy Awakening mobilization, seeks to call attention to the barriers faced by many would-be voters who are in fact eligible — but still face numerous roadblocks to actually voting.

Colby is a student at North Carolina’s Guilford College and organizes with the campus chapter of Democracy Matters, which works to get money out of politics. He was able to successfully register in North Carolina, even though his state ended same-day registration and preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds when the state passed a number of new voter suppression laws in 2013. Despite this, Colby voted early in that state’s primary.

(Courtesy: Peter Callahan / Democracy Spring)(Courtesy: Peter Callahan / Democracy Spring)

Cuts to Early Voting

Colby only had 10 days of early voting in which to cast his ballot in North Carolina, down from 17 days before legislators cut early voting in 2013. Other states such as Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio have cut early voting times since 2011, some nearly in half, with others eliminating nights and weekends. 

Nearly 32 percent of voters cast their ballots early during the 2012 election. In North Carolina, more than 70 percent of early voters in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections were Black voters. Professors Ted Allen and Paul Gronke found that shorter early voting periods there translated to longer lines on Election Day — and fewer voters overall.

Long lines disproportionately impact working people, the elderly and those with disabilities. According to Allen, if even just a small percentage of the people who previously voted on the days that have since been eliminated in North Carolina showed up on Election Day, waiting times to vote could more than double. With longer lines, he has calculated that 18,000 people could simply give up and leave without voting, with a disproportionate number being people of color.

Since Colby was able to vote early, he didn’t experience a long line, but he did have to make sure he presented the poll workers with the correct form of ID to cast his ballot.

Photo ID Laws

Like other states that have passed restrictive photo ID laws, North Carolina now only accepts certain forms of state-issued photo ID at the polls. Colby was nearly denied a state-issued photo ID when he went to the local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Workers there told him that he wouldn’t be able to obtain a photo ID for voting purposes because of his out-of-state driver’s license.

“The whole problem with the voter law is that you can’t use an out-of-state driver’s license in order to vote; you have to get a specific North Carolina ID card, and we had to literally look up the law and the text of the law, and show it to the DMV officer for him to understand what was happening,” Colby told Truthout. “I wound up getting the correct ID, but someone who isn’t well versed in this law probably would have been turned away.”

As part of Colby’s campus organizing efforts with Democracy Matters, he helped to give his fellow classmates at Guilford College rides to both the polls and to the local Department of Motor Vehicles to obtain the adequate form of state-issued ID required by North Carolina after its new photo ID law went into effect in January.

Four classmates he drove to the polls back in March experienced trouble casting their ballots. One student was turned away because her family had recently moved to Chapel Hill, where she was told she needed to register. Another was told their federally issued passport wasn’t a valid form of ID, and a couple of other students mistakenly reported incorrect address numbers and had to file a change of address form.

According to the state’s own estimate, nearly 218,000 registered voters in North Carolina lacked adequate photo IDs when they voted in 2014, before the new law was fully implemented. The state’s voter ID laws are currently being challenged in court, with a trial set for this July. At least 13 states will have photo ID laws in place for the first time in the 2016 presidential election.

Obtaining the right form of ID only by the skin of his teeth, Colby’s next step is actually voting. For millennials like him, that increasingly means using an electronic voting machine.

Voting Machines and Ballot Design

Lawrence Norden, who is deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, co-authored a report last year finding that during this year’s presidential election cycle, 43 states will use electronic voting machines that are at least 10 years old — dangerously close to the end of their life span.

Voting machine crashes can and have resulted in long lines and lost votes on Election Day, and the prevalence of aging machines and their associated problems have remained an under-covered aspect of elections. Among the record-setting flood of Primary Day voter complaints in New York on Tuesday, some precincts reported faulty voting machines.

Election officials have experienced everything from touch-screen machines’ tendency to “vote flip” to troubling security flaws in Virginia, where officials had to decertify a “voting system used in 24 percent of precincts after finding that an external party could access the machine’s wireless features to ‘record voting data or inject malicious data.'”

Technological and human errors alike can become a barrier in communicating totals to the proper officials at the county and state levels. Norden cited one case in which a bug connected to a particular voting system would cause votes to drop from a machine’s memory card when it was inserted into a county server. It’s one reason why backup paper records — and election officials’ due diligence in cross-checking them — are so important.

But the process of tallying up a district’s votes and sending them up the line differs from across counties and states, and while Norden says that most states have paper records to cross-check their machines against, as well as automatic post-election audits, some don’t have any accompanying paper records for their machines.

Additionally, many voters who use paper ballots run into problems. Among Primary Day voter complaints in New York City, in addition to long lines and understaffing, was confusion due to the ballot’s problematic design.

Back in North Carolina, however, Colby’s voting machine registered his vote, but there was still another problem in store for him. Like every other voter residing in North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District, his vote for a congressional primary candidate literally didn’t count, even though congressional candidates were on his ballot. That’s because a federal court ruled in February that the boundaries of his district had been drawn in such a way as to concentrate Black voters — and thus dilute their influence.

Redistricting and Redrawing

Colby lives in Greensboro, and at the time he voted, his congressional district was arguably one of the squiggliest districts to grace a congressional map — so squiggly, in fact, that a three federal judge panel ruled it had been racially gerrymandered and had to be redrawn.

The same court also ruled North Carolina’s 1st Congressional District had to be redrawn, even though five years ago the US Department of Justice approved both districts’ maps. State lawmakers moved the primaries for US House races from March 15 to June 7, but the districts’ March 15 ballots had already been printed to include congressional candidates. Election officials urged district voters to fill out the ballot in its entirety, even though votes for congressional candidates would not be counted.

“I live literally right across the street [from Guilford College] in an apartment complex, and until about a couple weeks ago, I was in a different congressional district than my school,” Colby told Truthout. “It looks like a piece of spaghetti wiggled onto the map.”

Across the nation, elected officials have manipulated district lines to favor one candidate or party over another. Like in Colby’s district, gerrymandering often impacts communities of color the most by diminishing their political influence. It’s widespread use by Republicans and Democrats alike constitutes one of the nation’s most substantial voting barriers. It leads to the packing of like-minded voters into the same district, and limiting the ability of both incumbents and challengers to mount successful bids, and the splitting apart of communities.

Because the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act took place after the most recent round of redistricting, the Brennan Center’s Michael Li predicts a greater impact in redistricting after the 2020 US Census. “There clearly are instances where people’s vote[s] are effectively rendered meaningless in the general election, because the district will never flip in the general election,” Li said. “Everything gets decided then, in the primary, which … is a low turnout affair.”

Depending on one’s district, a voter’s influence may be diminished (or strengthened) based solely on the way its lines are drawn. But there’s another voting structure that diminishes the influence of certain categories of voters. For example, even if things had gone off without a hitch in New York on Tuesday, independent voters would have still been left out simply due to the nature of the state’s closed primary system.

Primaries vs. Caucuses

A federal judge denied a request on Tuesday for a temporary restraining order that would have opened up New York’s primary election to all voters, allowing registered independents to cast a ballot. A lawsuit filed by Election Justice USA complained of registration purges and of some voters’ party affiliations being changed without cause.

Closed primaries allow only registered Democrats or Republicans to participate, while open primaries allow anyone to participate in choosing a party’s nominee. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders railed against the New York’s closed primary Tuesday, saying the system had sidelined about 3 million people. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, has tended to outperform Sanders in closed primaries, while in open contests, Sanders has consistently gained an advantage as the longest-serving independent in Congress.

Sanders has also done well in state caucuses, which involve a series of local party precinct meetings. Caucuses are thought to benefit Sanders because the format rewards candidates with very committed supporters. Long speeches and multiple rounds of voting accompany caucuses.

But not everyone agrees that caucuses are as inclusive as primaries. Caucus meetings can run for hours longer than expected, forcing many to leave early. During the Iowa caucuses, county delegates were awarded in several Iowa Democratic caucus precincts on the basis of a tie-breaking coin flip.

But in both primaries and caucuses, one’s vote selects delegates to attend a county convention. There, more delegates are selected to go on to the congressional district state convention. Those delegates in turn elect those who attend the national convention.

Electing Electors: Superdelegates and the Electoral College

Colby is one of the many voters who feel that the Democratic Party’s delegate system is undemocratic and rigged to favor establishment candidates. Hundreds of “unpledged” and unelected party elites known as superdelegates have a colossal impact on the primary election.

Superdelegates make up about 15 percent of the Democratic Party’s total delegates, and candidates need 30 percent of party delegates to clinch the nomination. This unaccountable party aristocracy cements traditional, establishment politics and provides another obstacle not just to voters like Colby, but also to candidates popularly chosen by the grassroots.

“The whole thing with these superdelegates is that they allow the establishment to quell insurgency with Sanders’ campaign,” said Colby, who, if it wasn’t already obvious, cast his ballot for Sanders.

Terry Michael served as the press secretary for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) during the 1984 and 1988 presidential nominating processes, and told Truthout that during that time he witnessed “the transformation of [the] delegate selection process from one that was almost 100 percent determined by the outcome of primary and caucus voters, to one that became about 85 percent determined by primary and caucus voters.”

Michael says that, in the aftermath of George McGovern’s and Walter Mondale’s losses in 1972 and 1984, Democrats became worried they were nominating unelectable candidates. And so, “unpledged delegates” were added into the process by the rule-supervising commissions set up at the time.

“[The system] got corrupted into this situation we have today,” said Michael, adding that he believes the Republican Party’s delegate system is demonstrably flawed. “[Republicans] can’t even control their own convention,” he said.

Of course, after the major parties select their nominees during this summer’s party conventions, voters will again be tasked with picking a slate of electors — this time in the form of the US Electoral College, during the general election. A voter’s state determines its allotment of electors, and is equal to its number of congressional representatives, determining the extent to which a given state becomes a crucial swing state in the general election.

By this stage, many potential voters who don’t live in swing states have already given up on voting because they may feel their vote is essentially meaningless. Meanwhile, many of those who do live in swing states feel that their vote is a capitulation to a candidate they don’t necessarily support wholeheartedly — that they are simply participating in a form of “damage control” by voting against the candidate they dislike most.

Money in Politics: A Shared Vector

A common thread weaving its way between each of these voting barriers is the corrupting influence of money in politics — a central focal point of both the Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening mobilizations.

For example, major media conglomerates have collectively contributed more than $1 million in campaign contributions to political organizations and candidates this election cycle. Furthermore, many of the same politicians restricting voter registration, cutting early voting periods, passing restrictive photo ID laws and drawing squiggly district maps receive campaign money from outside spending organizations and special interest groups. Lobbyists for private prisons and fossil fuel companies not only staff and finance presidential candidates’ campaigns, but also serve as superdelegates.

Lobbyists for private prisons and fossil fuel companies not only staff and finance presidential candidates’ campaigns, but also serve as superdelegates.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, nearly $100 million cascaded into presidential super PACs in the last six months of 2015. Federal Election Commission records show 29 individuals or groups gave $1 million or more, with those contributions tending to be concentrated among the wealthiest contributors.

One can make the argument based on the current state campaign finance rules alone, as many involved with the Democracy Spring movement have, that the US electoral process has been corrupted and distorted by the influence of private, dark money. Indeed, campaign finance experts argue that the surging tide of campaign contributions unleashed by the 2010 Citizens United decision is so thoroughly dominating our electoral process, it is effectively drowning out the value of the non-affluent vote.

The idea that the United States, as either a democracy or a constitutional republic, has deteriorated into an oligarchy is becoming more and more pervasive — not just in the minds of angry grassroots voters, but also within elite universities and on the world stage.

The Red Pill: Transcending the Electoral Matrix

Movements like Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening are part of a burgeoning voting rights and campaign finance reform movement helping to reveal the intersections of the modern US electoral matrix. Activists like Heroux and Colby, who have seen their vote denied and diminished, are deepening their understanding of political participation by using direct action tactics to reclaim power from representatives who have failed to represent their interests.

And the awareness this growing movement is raising about the erosion of representation is having a real impact. Despite the fact that at least 77 bills to restrict access to registration and voting have been introduced or carried over from the prior session in 28 states since the start of the 2016 legislative session — more bills have been introduced to do the opposite. At least 422 bills to enhance voting access have been introduced or carried over in 41 states this legislative session.

The movement is also building support for a 28th Amendment to the US Constitution that would not only overturn the Citizens United ruling, but also would establish that corporations are not people under the law.

“This is a moment that connects protest to the polls, connects the activists to the voters … and in so doing, we create a citizenry of consciousness, a country of consciousness,” said the NAACP’s Cornell Brooks before his arrest.