‘Unrigging’ our elections

TROY journalism professor Steve Stewart explores the politics behind the U.S. electoral system.

TROY journalism professor Steve Stewart explores the politics behind the U.S. electoral system.

“Elections are rigged,” one of my students said — echoing a word used by Donald Trump, whom she probably would not vote for.

My instinct was to disagree, but on reflection I came to the conclusion that “rigged” is too strong a word, but she has a point.

In several ways, our system makes some votes count more than others and discourages participation by all citizens — despite what many of us were taught in high school civics about voting being a duty and ours being a government of the people.

  • Candidates who have access to money can buy advertising, promote voter registration, enable supporters to turn out on Election Day, and otherwise gain an advantage over poorer candidates who may be better qualified and more disposed to serve the public. Thus, fundraising has become the tail wagging the dog in politics, and wealthy donors gain disproportionate access to and influence on elected officials.
  • Election districts are gerrymandered to give one party an advantage, packing majorities of supporters into many districts and majorities of opponents into fewer districts. For example, Republicans did their homework regarding 2010 census results and outsmarted Democrats when the U.S. House was redistricted, making it almost impossible for the Democrats to achieve a majority in the House even if they receive more votes nationwide.
  • The timing of elections can be loaded. In August, the Alabama Legislature missed the deadline to put a proposed lottery on the November ballot. One reason may have been that Republicans in Jefferson County did not want the lottery to draw voters to the polls who would support Democrats.
  • Alabama and other states have passed voter identification laws and other measures that make it difficult for some people to vote, despite the lack of research showing a need for those laws. In some cases, they have rolled back early-voting opportunities and made voter registration deadlines earlier. Is it coincidental that many of these laws were passed after the U.S. Supreme Court loosened the federal supervision provided by the Voting Rights Act?
  • We continue to hold elections on Tuesdays, which might have made sense decades ago but has little justification now. If we voted on Saturday or Sunday, more people could participate.
  • And let’s not let our Founding Fathers off the hook. They set up the Electoral College and a fallback plan that could throw a presidential election into the House of Representatives. As a result, sometimes the person who receives the most popular votes does not get elected president. It happened most recently in 2000, when a half-million more Americans voted for Al Gore but George W. Bush won the electoral vote after the Supreme Court settled a Florida recount. (In 2004, Bush was re-elected with a majority of the popular vote.) Nationwide polls that measure whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is ahead in the popular vote do not mean much in terms of electoral strategy; the campaigns are tightly focused on the likely outcomes in a handful of swing states. Because of the Electoral College — combined with the fact that Alabama is a reliably red state — presidential candidates can ignore our state in the general election, and there is little chance that a single Alabamian’s vote can influence the national outcome. If you want to make a difference in this presidential election, move to Florida.

The dictionary definition of “rigging” an election includes fraud, and I would not say that these examples show fraud. What they do show is politics (yes, even in the writing of the Constitution). Court challenges have thwarted such tactics in some cases, but the best solutions are political.

In other words, people need to inform themselves, register and vote — despite the obstacles, which, in all honesty, are not that great. Nobody can buy an election unless voters let themselves be bought. State legislatures draw congressional and legislative districts, and voters can elect legislators who will work for the people, not for parties and special interests.

Such solutions are easier said than done, of course. It takes awareness and motivation for large numbers of citizens to act, and it probably won’t happen unless somebody mounts a successful campaign.

But if you think politicians are rigging your elections, the best short-term solution is to outsmart them and outvote them.