We in the United States take it for granted that we live in a democracy, that electoral college vs. popular vote kerfluffle notwithstanding.
A recent op-ed in the Raleigh, North Carolina-based The News & Observer calls that premise into question, at least for the citizens of the Tar Heel State.
Written by Andrew Reynolds, who has helped organize elections under extremely difficult circumstances in some of the most problematic countries in the world, including Afghanistan, Burma, Egypt, Lebanon, South Africa, Sudan and Yemen, among others, the essay details the methods he and his colleagues have created to provide a comprehensive analysis of election quality in any situation.
Developed in 2012 by Reynolds and his Danish co-worker Jorgen Elklit, in collaboration with Pippa Norris of Harvard University, their system forms the basis of the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP) which has evaluated 213 elections in 153 countries and is considered the state of the art in “evaluating how free and fair and democratic elections are across time and place.”
Reynolds is a North Carolina native, so it came as quite a surprise to him when the EIP put North Carolina’s elections to the test and he saw the results that indicated that the state could “no longer considered to be a fully functioning democracy,” as the op-ed reveals. North Carolina’s score on the measures is deeply troubling as the article goes to describe the study’s findings:
“In the just released EIP report, North Carolina’s overall electoral integrity score of 58/100 for the 2016 election places us alongside authoritarian states and pseudo-democracies like Cuba, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. If it were a nation state, North Carolina would rank right in the middle of the global league table – a deeply flawed, partly free democracy that is only slightly ahead of the failed democracies that constitute much of the developing world.”
“Indeed, North Carolina does so poorly on the measures of legal framework and voter registration, that on those indicators we rank alongside Iran and Venezuela. When it comes to the integrity of the voting district boundaries no country has ever received as low a score as the 7/100 North Carolina received. North Carolina is not only the worst state in the USA for unfair districting but the worst entity in the world ever analyzed by the Electoral Integrity Project.”
Reynolds cites other measures of democracy, Freedom House, POLITY and the Varieties of Democracy project, all of which determine “the degree to which the exercise of power depends on the will of the people: That is, governance is not arbitrary, it follows established rules and is based on popular legitimacy” and enumerates the ways in which North Carolina fails the test.
“First, legislative power does not depend on the votes of the people. One party wins just half the votes but 100 percent of the power. The GOP has a huge legislative majority giving it absolute veto-proof control with that tiny advantage in the popular vote. The other party wins just a handful of votes less and 0 percent of the legislative power. This is above and beyond the way in which state legislators are detached from democratic accountability as a result of the rigged district boundaries. They are beholden to their party bosses, not the voters. Seventy-six of the 170 (45 percent) incumbent state legislators were not even opposed by the other party in the general election.”
“Second, democracies do not limit their citizens’ rights on the basis of their born identities. However, this is exactly what the North Carolina legislature did through House Bill 2 (there are an estimated 38,000 transgender Tar Heels), targeted attempts to reduce African-American and Latino access to the vote and pernicious laws to constrain the ability of women to act as autonomous citizens.”
“Third, government in North Carolina has become arbitrary and detached from popular will. When, in response to losing the governorship, one party uses its legislative dominance to take away significant executive power, it is a direct attack upon the separation of powers that defines American democracy. When a wounded legislative leadership, and a lame-duck executive, force through draconian changes with no time for robust review and debate it leaves Carolina no better than the authoritarian regimes we look down upon.”
All of this is pretty damning evidence and begs a call to action for the restoration of citizen’s rights. Reynolds suggests that awareness of the issue is the first step and has provided the data necessary to prove the issue and publicize it.
He then provides a list of practical steps to take to remedy the unconscionable situation.
“Practically we need to address the institutional failures which have cost us our democratic ranking – districting, equal access to the vote and the abuse of legislative power. An independent commission is the sine-qua-non of democratic districting (no democracy in the world outside of the U.S. allows the elected politicians to draw the lines). Voter registration and poll access should make voting as easy as possible and never be skewed in favor of any one section of society. Last, elected officials need to respect the core principles of democracy – respect the will of the voters, all the voters and play the game with integrity.”
Reynolds conclusion is one that should be easy to accept, but hard to believe under the current administration with the Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the White House.
“Respect for democracy is not a partisan issue. In America true Republicans are as loyal to democratic principles as are Democrats,” Reynolds writes.
We wish for the days when that may have been true, but unless Reynolds comes up with a series of measures to evaluate individual politicians’ commitment to democracy rather than just for governments, the recent evidence points to one party as being guilty of ignoring democratic principles in voter restriction, registration, voter IDs, poll culling, gerrymandering, and all the other methods of ensuring electoral results in their own favor…and it’s appropriately not the Democrats.