Debra Thompson is an associate professor of political science at McGill University.
“This is what democracy looks like!”
The chant is a common rendering at mass protests, especially over the past four years. Democracy took shape in the streets during the Women’s Marches in 2017, 2018 and 2019, the March for Science in 2017 and 2018, and the March for Our Lives in 2018. The largest and most diverse mass protests in recent memory – possibly ever – occurred this past summer in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and rapidly spread across the United States. At the time, a question repeatedly posed by pundits and protestors alike was whether Democrats, the party that has positioned itself as the defender of civil rights, would be able to capitalize on the anger and energy of the protestors and transform it into electoral success at the polls.
Too often, the response of the Democratic Party to the tragedies and terror of the past four years has been a myopic focus on the formal institutions of democratic rule: “Just vote.” Celebrities release a torrent of “Get Out The Vote” posts on every social-media platform. “Don’t boo. Vote!” president Barack Obama once admonished. Even with claims that it was about More Than a Vote, the organization created by LeBron James and fellow athletes worked to increase the number of poll workers in Black electoral districts. Just vote.
As certainty about the final tally from Tuesday’s election in the United States slowly materializes, the question remains: Can voting be enough to restore the democratic norms that have been under a full-scale assault during the Trump presidency?
The calls to “just vote” ring hollow in many ways, given the administrative obstacle course that many voters must pass through in order to make their way to the polls, and the possibility of a melee of postelection legal battles between the two campaigns to decide which votes can be counted, and whose voices matter.
The blame for this mess lies predominantly at the feet of the Republican Party. It is fundamentally a party of minority rule, now forced to come to terms with the fact that it is unable to maintain power in free and fair elections. The GOP has proven unwilling to adapt itself to changing attitudes and demographics, so instead it has turned its attention to attacking the electoral process and manipulating the electorate itself. Its use of ostensibly democratic institutions for anti-democratic purposes, over the past several decades, is intended not just to win this presidential election, but to permanently secure a white-majority electorate.
Any observer of American elections, especially those of us in Canada, can see that these tactics have worked. It has now been several elections since the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. In response to this catastrophic decision (the premise of which was essentially that the VRA is no longer necessary because racism is over), states have spent the past seven years passing legislation intended to make voting more difficult and less accessible, including strict photo ID requirements, laws that make it harder to register to vote and stay registered, and laws that make it difficult to vote early or absentee. In addition, most states disenfranchise people convicted of felonies which, due to the notoriously racist nature of law enforcement and the criminal punishment system, disproportionately targets Black people. Estimates indicate that in 11 states, more than 10 per cent of the voting-age Black population has been legally disenfranchised.
This electoral season has been marred by attempts to sow confusion and misinformation, voter roll purges amid contrived concerns about “voter fraud,” inaccessible and reduced poll stations, long lines and egregious wait times at polling locations, widespread gerrymandering, lawsuits to stop absentee and mail-in ballots from being counted, opposition to early voting, the intimidating presence of police and right-wing militias at polling stations and, in some cases, the literal destruction of ballots. This is not even to mention the 230,000 people that can’t vote because they have been killed by the government’s callous indifference to human life in the face of COVID-19, or the obstacles to voting that are amplified because of the pandemic.
For decades, white conservatives have been overcome with disbelief, resentment and outrage at the prospect of the country crossing the “majority-minority” threshold, which demographers predict is likely to happen in the 2040s. In an effort to maintain a white-majority electorate, Republicans at both the federal and state levels have pursued more restrictive and crueler immigration policies, supported more draconian “law and order” practices to incarcerate and disenfranchise, and attempted to obscure demographic changes by manipulating the questions and enumeration methods of the decennial census.
In every single one of these circumstances, Black, Indigenous and other communities of colour in the United States are disproportionately disenfranchised. These racialized outcomes are by design.
Is this what democracy looks like?
Even if Joe Biden ends up in the White House, even if Kamala Harris were to make history as the first Black woman to be the vice-president of the United States, the country will not magically transform into the democracy that we took to the streets to demand. Telling people to “just vote” every two to four years, and shaming those who don’t, doesn’t change the incredible obstacles to voting, nor does it absolve Democrats of the party’s failure to protect minority voting rights against Republicans' open hostility to an inclusive democracy. The fanfare of “just vote” and the spectacle of election day disguise the deeply anti-democratic nature of this so-called “democratic republic.”
Is it any wonder that a not insignificant part of the population doubts that either party is likely to bring about the conditions of racial justice? This shouldn’t be what democracy looks like.
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