The demoralizing state of democracy

By Hannah Sparks


Growing up we are told that one of the greatest privileges of living in a democratic society is having the right to vote. Voting to Americans is a very big deal. But does our most sacred civic duty truly retain its inviolability when the state of politics is so corrupt?

That our political system is incompetent is hardly a revelation. Many Americans still seem to have faith in voting, thinking of it as a way to make politicians hear their voice. In reality, the state of voting is almost as messed up as the political system it upholds. (Although for the more cynical among us, this fact may not be a revelation, either.)

When it was first ratified, the Constitution granted the vote only to white male landowners. Over time, however, reforms made it so that more and more people could vote. As the reforms were being made at a snail’s pace, other obstacles were established such as poll taxes and literacy tests to keep anyone Irish immigrants, former slaves, the poor and other minority groups  from voting.

Voter intimidation is still a problem today. According to a 2012 study compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, since 2010, 16 states have passed laws making it more difficult for up to five million people to vote in the November elections. Some laws include restrictions on early voting and requirement of photo identification. The photo identification requirement has come under legal fire for being discriminatory against poorer people, who may not be able to pay the associated fees or travel to issuers. Elderly drivers without valid driver’s licenses are also being discriminated against.

Also working against voters are anti-fraud groups such as the conservative group True the Vote, which cites voter fraud as a major issue in American elections, says Stephanie Saul in the New York Times article “Looking, Very Closely, for Voter Fraud.” Volunteers for these groups, called poll watchers, swarm registration drives, trying to find evidence of fraud, and often impede the process or drive people away. Poll watchers also often come up empty-handed: another Brennan Center study found that voter fraud happens about as often as an American is struck and killed by lightning, or about 0.0004 percent.

It doesn’t take a political strategist to see the motivation behind restricting voter’s rights and trying to ferret out nearly non-existent voter fraud in swing states. Some believe the intent is to keep President Obama from being re-elected, as it is mostly his voter base that is being targeted.

Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai said “voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania: Done,” to the Republican State Committee. Republican Senator Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin, who helped a similar law be passed in Wisconsin, said in an interview with, “the people who cheat are more likely to vote against us,” and that the laws will prevent such cheating.

African-Americans, Hispanics, the elderly, women and low-income people are the democratic base and the most at risk by these voter I.D. laws. Draw your own conclusions about the laws.

Clearly, there are some very compelling reasons to be disillusioned with the political process in the United States. The hope that accompanied the 2008 election has disappeared, many of the promises Obama made during his campaign have not been fulfilled. Not only has partisan infighting led to a stalemate in the “do-nothing” Congress, but the constant head-butting raises some real questions about the effectiveness of the two-party system.

Underlying all of these logistical concerns is the pervasively negative tone of both Obama and Mitt Romney’s campaigns. The message “vote for me because I’m not the other guy” hardly inspires voter confidence, and voters need all the confidence they can get.

Since 1932, voter turnout has been hovering around just over 50 percent, with a high of 62.8 percent in 1960, and a low of 49.0 percent in 1996, according to the Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States 2012.

It seems that a lot of people choose to abstain from voting. In a 1956 article titled “Why I Won’t Vote,” W.E.B. DuBois said, “democracy is dead in the United States. Yet there is still nothing to replace real democracy … when again we can hold a fair election on real issues, let’s vote, and not till then.” Someone could be making the same statement 56 years later, at a time when the 24-hour news cycle has not only exhausted voters with a marathon political season but also turned politics into a kind of grotesque circus. The problem is that this circus has the power to influence the lives of all Americans.

While refusing to participate in the political process technically limits your responsibility for its rampant incompetency and dishonesty, the hands-off approach may only perpetuate that status quo.  Maybe David Foster Wallace was right when he wrote, “there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.” It’s a catch 22; trying to balance that last bit of hope we may have in our government with the intuition that it will inevitably be a losing game.

Hannah Sparks is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected].