The death watch over democracy in the United States has started.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and other foreign vultures are circling the nation as its elections and its representative democracy are on life support. Within the past two decades, voters' decisions have been subjected to an unprecedented number of attacks. In several states, citizens have gathered signatures to place initiatives on ballots, only to watch voter-passed initiatives stomped on by governors and state legislatures that oppose them. Legislatures often draw both state legislative and congressional districts that tilt in a partisan direction so legislators often face no repercussions from disgruntled voters for their decisions. But democracy's fatal blow could arrive sooner than expected with the 2020 presidential election around the corner.
It's easy to pinpoint the recent event that hurt our elections: the 2000 presidential contest. George W. Bush's victory instantly became mired in controversy after a mandatory recount in Florida, and an additional hand recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court came to an abrupt halt by order of the conservative-leaning Supreme Court because it viewed such a recount as unconstitutional. Bush, whose brother was Florida Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, won Florida by 537 votes, but only after a number of ballots were discarded as a result of voter errors caused by ballot design in an area that heavily favored Al Gore. Bush lost the national popular vote but won the Electoral College and clinched the presidency. A nonpartisan postelection analysis concluded that a majority of Floridians intended to vote for Gore, but the defective ballots changed the outcome.
Then along came citizen initiatives that were popular with voters and unpopular with state legislatures. The Florida legislature devised plans to overturn or diminish voter-passed initiatives to limit class sizes, develop high-speed rail and, most recently, restore voting rights to nearly 1.4 million felons who were not convicted of murder or sex offenses. The Republican-controlled Florida legislature recently passed a law that clarified the voter-passed initiative that if felons want their rights restored, they have to pay their court-ordered financial obligations first. Many believe these felons are low income and support the Democratic Party.
In 2016, South Dakota voters passed a citizen initiative meant to diminish the influence of lobbyists. But the South Dakota legislature quickly repealed the law and replaced it with a law that placed fewer restrictions on lobbyists. That same year, Oklahoma voters passed a citizen initiative covering criminal justice reform that reclassified nearly all felony drug possession charges as misdemeanors. But the Oklahoma legislature immediately watered down the voter-passed initiative.
In November 2017, Maine voters passed a citizen initiative for Medicaid expansion, but Gov. Paul LePage was staunchly opposed to it, and he spent the reminder of his time in office refusing to implement it.
The District of Columbia – considered a progressive paradise for Democrats – City Council ignored a voter-passed initiative that would have required restaurants to annually raise the minimum wage of tipped employees by $1.50 until 2025, when the hourly rate would match the $15 minimum wage for non-tipped employees.
Voters got shafted last month when they lost an avenue to address their grievances of partisan-drawn congressional maps by state legislatures. The Supreme Court handed state legislatures a weapon in their battle against voters who want to make congressional districts politically balanced. The court ruled that federal courts are powerless to fight against state legislatures that draw congressional maps that favor the state legislature majority party, thus reducing the voice of the minority party.
Voters could get shafted yet again. Many states are exploring ways to hurt President Donald Trump by requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns to appear on their November 2020 ballots. Trump has repeatedly said he would release his tax returns but has stalled.
The 2020 election could be the most controversial. If a candidate loses a state, but the state legislature is controlled by the losing candidate's political party, will it ignore the will of the voters and give its electoral votes to its losing candidate? If a state fails to place a party's presidential candidate on its ballot, is the presidential election valid? As the hyperpartisanship continues and scary scenarios seem more probable, the obituaries for U.S. democracy should be prepared and the services may be announced on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020.
David Placher is a Fort Wayne resident.