November 7, 2018

VALDETARO | A Democracy, If We Can Keep It

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At the point of writing, the next holders of many of the 470 federal offices on the ballot this year have been decided. Beginning with Kentucky at 6 p.m., polls have closed across the country, with Democrats taking the House and Republicans consolidating their control of the Senate.

Perhaps even more important than these federal elections, though, are state elections, which will have more numerous and longer-lasting implications. In the midst of our current political divisions, state governments not only provide a place for opponents of federal policies to try out their own policies, but state attorneys general have increasingly used their offices to launch legal challenges against the actions and policies of presidential administrations. It is not just in their role as laboratories of democracy, though, that the results of state elections will play an important role in future elections. On this night, state-level elections have delivered an ambiguous and unclear verdict on who gets to vote and who people get to vote for.

Beyond the states’ roles as bastions of federalism, they also have the crucial role of administering elections. In this role, states also set criteria for who is eligible to vote, an ability that was used for nearly a century to disenfranchise African-American voters in the South — until the Voting Rights Act of 1964. This legislation prevented states that had previously restricted access to the voting booth from enacting any new measures without prior approval from the federal government. However, in 2013 the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of this landmark legislation, leading to the politicization and increasing racialization of access to the ballot box in the ensuing years. Tonight, this issue was on the ballot in the form of both ballot initiatives and candidates with clear stances on the voting rights.

Many ballot initiatives were attempts to increase people’s abilities to vote. One of these was in Florida, where Amendment 4 was a proposed constitutional amendment to automatically restore the right to vote to formerly incarcerated felons (except those convicted of murder or sexual assault). Currently, they have to go through a decades-long process that prevents over 10 percent of Florida’s voting age population from voting, a group of people that was disproportionately African-American. Requiring over 60 percent of the vote to pass, Amendment 4 currently has been projected to exceed that threshold. As a result, an additional 1.4 million Floridians will be eligible to vote in the next election. In contrast, an Arkansas ballot measure requiring a photo I.D. to vote has nearly 80 percent of the vote. That means a state which was once part of the Confederacy is set to enact a policy that disproportionately curtails the ability of minorities to vote.

Candidates with explicit stances on voting rights had similarly mixed results. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, once the Vice Chair of President Trump’s President Commission on Election Integrity, lost to Democrat Laura Kelly in his bid to become Governor of Kansas. Even before his appointment to the President’s frivolous commission, Kobach was the premier propagator of the myth that voter fraud is a widespread issue. On the other hand, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp looks to be on his way to being elected, despite numerous controversies, including a strict-match system that he championed leading to hundreds of thousands of people having their voter registrations stuck in limbo. These indeterminate registrations were often due to a simple misspelling or omission of a hyphen in a name, an issue that disproportionately affected Democrat-friendly African-Americans in the state. On a similar note, New Hampshire Governor John Kelly, who recently passed a law making it harder for out-of-state students to vote, was re-elected in spite of this action drawing much controversy.

In addition to who could vote, who the electorate gets to vote for was also on the ballot. In multiple states, there were electoral reform packages on the ballot in the form of ballot initiatives. This is especially relevant given the upcoming 2020 census, with redistricting being taken up by the states so that new districts can be in place for the 2022 election. In Michigan, a state that was gerrymandered by Republicans in the 2010 elections, the voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative to create an independent redistricting commission. Colorado passed not only a measure that would similarly hand congressional redistricting duties to an independent commission, but also one that gave the task of redistricting state legislative districts to a non-partisan independent commission.

The fact that redistricting is impending also underscored the importance of governor’s races, which were already important for their aforementioned consequences for voting rights. Of the states electing governors tonight, 26 allow their governor to veto congressional maps drawn by state legislatures and 23 allow them to do the same for state legislative maps. These means that the newly re-elected governors of Maryland and Pennsylvania, states notorious for their gerrymandered congressional districts, will have the power to prevent such maps from being approved after this upcoming census. In competitive races, Richard Cordray was elected to be the next Governor of Ohio, preventing Democrats from being able to prevent another gerrymander after the 2020 census. In Wisconsin, the currently undecided gubernatorial election between Republican Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Tony Evers will similarly decide whether or not a gerrymander will occur again in that state.

In an election where most attention was on the federal level, the state-level elections have not only provided mixed results, but may have the longest-lasting effects. Although Democrats lost some close statewide races, they can and should take solace in the success of efforts to depoliticize election administration through electoral and voting-rights reforms in key swing states.

And here lies the greatest irony of our current political system: in order to depoliticize elections and voting, political organization will have to occur at the state level. Normal voters need to organize themselves to either demand that their elected officials enact electoral reforms, or to get such reforms on the ballot themselves. Not only is it our civic duty to improve democracy, even if the results of our democratic elections are unwilling to, but it is entirely possible. Normal individuals were behind the efforts in Colorado, Michigan and Florida, which have now improved democracy in those states for all that live in them. If there’s anything that this election has shown, it is that our republic truly is a democracy; if we can keep it.

Giancarlo Valdetaro is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Setting the Temperature runs every other Tuesday this semester. He can be reached at gvaldetaro@cornellsun.com