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Fixing the cracks in America’s foundation

Our democracy has been under attack from within. Here’s how political scientists say we can strengthen our system for the future.

Fixing the cracks in America’s foundation
[Illustration: Daniel Salo]
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This story is part of Fast Company‘s “USA: Can This Brand Be Saved?” package, approaching the question from a variety of angles and perspectives, ultimately aiming for an in-depth look at what America’s brand is, how it’s changed over the past four years, and where it needs to go from here. Click here to read the whole series.

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In the face of enormous obstacles, democracy looks likely to survive 2020. A record number of Americans went to the polls this year, despite spiking COVID-19 rates, rampant misinformation, and an ongoing campaign by the Trump administration to weaken America’s faith in the electoral process. In the end, the result was clear: Joe Biden won about 80 million votes nationally, more than any other candidate in history, defeating Trump by more than five million votes. And though Trump has persisted in claiming the election was rigged, the Department of Homeland Security released a statement saying that it was the most secure in American history.

In my interviews with half a dozen political scientists, there was unanimous agreement that this year’s elections unfolded smoothly and should reinforce our faith in America’s electoral processes. But these experts also highlighted systemic issues under the surface making the country less democratic. For instance, some states actively suppress the votes of particular communities by restricting early voting, disenfranchising ex-felons, and purging voter rolls, among other tactics. Elected officials use gerrymandering to redraw congressional and legislative maps, making it harder for their opponents to win. And U.S. voter turnout remains low compared to other advanced democracies: The record 65% turnout this year would be considered a poor showing in Australia or Sweden.

While these problems are difficult to solve, political scientists and activists say they are fixable. And by voting Donald Trump out of office, the United States has removed a major obstacle to fairer, more democratic elections. “There was a real risk in this election of the country degenerating into a soft totalitarianism,” says Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a professor at Harvard Law School. “So getting rid of this president is very important. But we still have a long way to go towards perfecting our democracy.”

Making Voting Easier

To understand how to make things better, it’s worth pausing to consider how the current system works. When it comes to the sheer mechanics of voting, experts say America passed the test with flying colors this year, in the face of tricky circumstances. “It was a very well run election, even before you add the degrees of difficulty we experienced this year,” says Charles Stewart III, an MIT professor and one of the country’s leading experts on election administration. “A lot of people stepped up to the plate, starting with election officials who did extraordinary work to adapt to the circumstances.”

This is no small feat, Stewart says, particularly given that the United States has a decentralized system that depends on a constellation of election officials spread out across states and counties. In March, when the pandemic struck the country, there were concerns about whether it would even be possible to hold the presidential election in November, or whether it would need to be postponed. But Stewart says that state legislators, governors, and secretaries provided the money, resources, and sheer political will necessary to ensure that the elections could run smoothly. This coordinated effort was effective. In most states, voters had many options for casting their ballots safely, including early voting and mail-in voting (sometimes with the ability to track your ballot through the system). As a result, even though there were fewer polling places than usual this year, lines on Election Day were manageable.

Jesse Clark, a doctoral candidate at MIT whose research focuses on political participation and electoral reform, says that any policies that make voting more convenient tend to lead to higher voter turnout, and this was likely true this year as well. The infrastructure and voting operations they created during COVID-19 may lay the groundwork for states to make voting easier in the future. “It’s becoming more of an election season, rather than an election day, and this is a good thing,” Clark says.

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Stewart says that there are additional ways to make voting convenient going forward. One day, voting online or through an app might be possible, but he says that will remain risky until we have a high degree of confidence the technology is secure and cannot be hacked. For right now, the most immediate way to improve voting operations is for the federal government and states to invest more money in the process, upgrading equipment and software systems. Administrative changes, such as making ballots more readable and having more poll workers at sites, could also go a long way. “Minor things like that are responsible for the measurable problems we’ve observed over the years of lost or rejected ballots,” he says. “Administrative changes that make it easier for the voter to vote would create a cascading effect of benefits to the voters.”

Faith In The System

Even though experts have said repeatedly that America’s election processes are secure and effective, President Trump has promoted baseless conspiracy theories that voting is rigged, which have been picked up and spread on partisan media. This has been his ongoing strategy. After winning the 2016 election but losing the popular vote, Trump falsely claimed that millions had voted illegally, and in the run-up to the 2020 election, he tried to argue that mail ballots promoted fraud (despite the fact that Trump himself votes by mail). The question now is how to restore the public’s faith in the system.

There is now a concerted effort to combat the lies spreading across the internet. This week, for instance, the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter are facing the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about election disinformation. And according to Stephen Pettigrew, data science director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies, and senior analyst at NBC News Decision Desk, part of the answer is for credible media to counter misinformation from the Trump campaign with facts.

We saw this play out in the run-up to the election and then on election night. Local news outlets helped people understand how voting would work in their state; on election night, major TV networks contextualized the results as they came in. “The media played a big role in telling the story of what’s going on on election night,” says Pettigrew. “They explained that it was likely that the early vote counting would favor Trump, but as more mail-in ballots were counted, the results could shift in Biden’s favor.” And when it came to projecting the winner in each state, decision desks were extremely judicious, so the public would feel confident in the calls. “We had to be at least 99.5% confident in a call before we made the projection,” he says. “And we were tuned out of any external pressure to call the race before we were ready.”

Even though Trump lacks evidence to contest the election, he has filed lawsuits arguing that illegal ballots were cast. But judges have quickly dismissed these cases. Still, Trump’s words have had an impact. A recent survey finds that 70% of Republicans do not believe the election was “free and fair,” up from 35% before the election. While this may seem alarming, Stewart says that it is not a new phenomenon. In his research, he has found that people appear more likely to believe there is election fraud when their party loses an election. After the 2000 election, for instance, Democrats argued that voting machines were flipping votes. By the same token, Stewart points out, voters whose party wins an election tend to have more faith in the system. And this is true this year as well: The same survey found that 90% of Democrats believe the election was “free and fair,” up from 52% before the election. “Questions of trust in the electoral process are very complicated,” Stewart says. “Heightened awareness of fraud can reduce the legitimacy of elections, but it can also cause the other side to have much greater faith in the election.”

Tackling Gerrymandering

Stephanopoulos argues that since there is no evidence of voter fraud, it is far more useful to focus attention on real, documented problems with our democracy. “I don’t worry about voter fraud because it isn’t true,” Stephanopoulos says. “Voter suppression and gerrymandering are not a figment of imagination: We can trace them.”

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Gerrymandering stands out as a particularly relevant problem facing our democracy right now. Electoral maps are redrawn every decade to ensure that each legislative district represents the changing population and demographics of the country. In most states, this process is left to the state legislature, whose elected officials can manipulate congressional maps in their favor by slicing up and diluting districts that have a majority of voters from the opposing party.  The next round of redistricting takes place in 2021, using data from the 2020 census.

Many researchers, activists, and politicians are actively working to make the process more fair. Among them are President Barack Obama, who recently launched an organization called All On The Line to educate the public about gerrymandering and empower people to fight for fair maps. “In recent years, we’ve seen more state legislatures controlled by Republicans,” says Maxwell Palmer, a professor of political science at Boston University who studies redistricting. “Gerrymandering generally advantages Republicans more than it has Democrats, although there are states in which it advantages Democrats.”

There are many strategies that could be used to make redistricting more equitable. Rather than having state legislatures draw the maps, states could set up independent redistricting commissions, which consist of everyday citizens from both parties, along with independents, who would work together to draw maps. There are also clever ways to draw maps more fairly. Palmer, for instance, developed an approach called the Define-Combine Procedure, in which one party draws double the number of required districts and the other party pairs them to create the final map. Commissions, legislatures, or judges could make use of this approach to resolve disputes between the parties. “In simulations with real election data, we find that regardless of which party goes first, we get much closer to an even split,” says Palmer. (Disclaimer: My husband, Benjamin Schneer, is one of Palmer’s collaborators on this project.)

Before most of these reforms can happen, state legislatures need to relinquish some of their power to draw maps by turning the process over to independent bodies or by implementing new, fairer processes. The record so far is not encouraging: For example, only eight states have formed independent redistricting commissions. Given the sharply polarized state of American politics, parties seem highly unlikely to collaborate on solutions improving fairness in the redistricting process. And help is unlikely to come from above. While the Supreme Court has the power to police partisan gerrymandering, in 2019 it refused to do so. Congress could also pass a federal bill to ban partisan gerrymandering, but this too appears extremely unlikely, given that Democrats will probably not have unified control any time soon.

Stephanopoulos notes that the main obstacle to any electoral reform is that it requires new legislation, which Republicans will likely block. “The American system is not designed to work well under conditions of polarization,” he says. “When you combine polarization with our checks and balances, it is almost impossible to get things done. Democrats will have to wait for landslide victories to enact sweeping changes that will make the political playing field fair.”

What Can We Do?

It’s true that many of the problems with our electoral systems seem entrenched. Given how polarized the country has become, it seems there is little chance for sweeping democratic reforms until Democrats get complete control of Congress. But there might be hope for bipartisanship at the state and local levels that might lead to more incremental improvements. In this past election, it is clear that there were officials on both sides who were working toward fair elections. In an interview this week on CNN, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state Brad Raffensperger says that he felt pressured by his party to find ways to throw out ballots, but he was committed to the integrity of the process. Moments such as this suggest that it might be possible for states to push forward legislation to make elections more fair.

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But we don’t have to wait for our leaders to create change. There’s a lot that we can do at the grassroots level to make our country more democratic. Over the last few years, organizations have popped up to tackle voter suppression. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams launched Fair Fight to register new voters and call people who may have been wrongly purged from voter rolls.  This effort may have helped Joe Biden win in the state by 14,000 votes, becoming the first Democrat to win in 28 years. (The state is headed for a recount, but the outcome is unlikely to change.) In Florida, the Rights Restoration Commission enlisted volunteers to help formerly incarcerated people gain access to their voting rights, which allowed 50,000 newly enfranchised felons to vote.

This kind of activism can have an impact. But Eitan Hersh, a professor of political science at Tufts, says that political volunteering is becoming increasingly rare. In his book Politics Is for Power, he argues that instead of actually getting involved in politics, Americans seem satisfied with bingeing on online news stories about politics, debating with people on social media, and being amateur pundits. In other words, they treat politics as a hobby, rather than organizing to influence the government and achieve their political objectives. “It’s easier than ever to attend a political meeting, but for many people it feels like a harder lift compared to getting on Twitter,” he says.

Hersh says that in most cases, these superficial brushes with politics make people less likely to engage more deeply. But occasionally, learning about an issue online might lead someone to participate in a more serious way. So he encourages people to follow their passion for making America more democratic and turn it into action. “We need to change cultural norms around activism,” he says. “Instead of just talking about politics, we should be asking each other what we’re actually doing in our communities.”

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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