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October 22, 2020

Voter suppression

Opinion

October 22, 2020

The US has helped spread democratic values across many parts of the world. However, in recent times, as politics within the US has become more and more contentious, many of the key pillars of democracy within the country itself have started to be scrutinized.

We are finding out that the US constitution did not envision a representative democracy as we understand it today. In other words, it does not allow for a system in which each citizen's vote counts equally. Nor does it guarantee every citizen the right to vote. It also does not allow for direct election of the president by all citizens.

As a point of compromise between northern states and slaveholding southern states, a system of indirect election of the president was devised leading to what is called the ‘Electoral College’.

In this setup, citizens elect a certain number of electors who then elect the president. The number of electors assigned to each state tend to over represent smaller states that are usually more conservative, thus favouring the Republican Party candidate. As this imbalance has grown, the country has started to see more and more instances of a president being elected with less than 50 percent of the popular vote as happened with Donald Trump. This trend is projected to accelerate over time.

The US constitution also installed a highly decentralized system of conducting elections. Each state, and sometimes counties within a state, can set up its own rules for registering voters and casting and counting votes. Given so much local control, the practice of ‘voter suppression’ has emerged – basically, making it harder to vote.

Early voting has already begun in many states for the November 3 national elections. In the state of Georgia, it was reported that many voters had to stand in line for up to 11 hours to cast their vote. Some may have left without voting. Such difficulties in voting make it harder for poorer voters who may not be able to take time off from work; same for younger voters who are students. History suggests these voters are more likely to vote Democrat.

Over the years, the Republican Party has emerged as the party of voter suppression. Wherever they control state and local government, they have tried to make it harder to vote for anybody, counting on the net result being in their favour – a sad outcome for a healthy democracy. Democrats, on the other hand, see an advantage in facilitating voting by all.

During this pandemic, many citizens are preferring to cast their vote by mail, using official ballots they receive by mail. They can either post their filled-out ballots or personally drop them off in secure ballot boxes set up by the counties.

Recently, the Republican governor of Texas decided that no more than one ballot box should be set up in each county. Consequently, there will be only one ballot drop off box available to the 4.5 million citizens of Harris County, Texas which includes the city of Houston, while the smallest Texas county with a population less than 200 also gets the same one ballot box.

The Texas governor's decision was challenged in court, which ruled in the governor's favour saying he had the right to set up voting rules as he saw fit. After all, the US constitution gives full rights to states and local governments to conduct elections as they see fit.

Sadly, after having spread the notion of democracy across much of the world, the US is now showing the world how elections could be run to suppress the will of the electorate.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Washington DC. Website: www.sqshareef.com/blogs