The first objective of the changes to the electoral process, which has elements of racism and class discrimination, is to make it difficult for certain types of voters to exercise their franchise. The second is to undermine the independence of state-level election officials
After the US presidential election in November 2020, it seemed that America’s electoral institutions were robust enough to resist the attempt of someone with authoritarian inclinations, and delusions of grandeur (the then sitting president) to subvert the result. The US does not have a national, independent elections oversight body as in India, but instead relies on a patchwork of state-level authorities.
This set-up seemed robust at the time, as state official after state official resisted the attempts of Donald Trump and his most committed cronies to create doubt, and challenge and undermine the result. State and federal courts also upheld the rule of law and the primacy of truth—by any objective standard, the elections had been conducted fairly.
At the time, it seemed like a triumph of American democracy. And it seemed as if a decentralized system could withstand a potential dictator. Those assessments may turn out to be too optimistic. First, Trump incited an insurrection, which came close to temporarily halting the final step in the process of declaring his opponent the next president. He has continued to lie about claims of fraud, and a significant portion of the American population believes him.
Even members of Congress, who know it is not true, are happy to lie about that, and now even to lie about the insurrection, comparing the violent mob to tourists enjoying a stroll in the US Capitol building.
Meanwhile, what is happening in the Republican-controlled states where the chief election officials certified the validity of the election, to the displeasure of Trump, are further attempts to call into question the election results, with corrupt “auditing” processes. All of this lying and deception is being used to justify overhauls of voting procedures.
There are two objectives of these changes to the electoral process. One is to make it difficult for certain types of voters to exercise their franchise—these are voters more likely to vote for the Democrats. They also happen to be more likely to be minorities and less well-off, so there are strong elements of racism and class discrimination in these Republican efforts.
The second objective is even more problematic: laws are being changed to undermine the independence of state-level election officials, potentially giving state legislators the power to overturn election results. This is what Trump was calling for, when all else failed. At the time, what he was seeking was clearly illegal. Now his supporters in state legislatures are opening the door to politicisation of election conduct.
For much of America’s history, its democracy was seriously restricted and imperfect in many ways. The most blatant was the denial of voting rights to African Americans, even after slavery was abolished. It seemed as if the civil rights movement of the 1960s had finally corrected this gross distortion of democracy. What is surprising is how a large chunk of the Republican party is committed to reintroducing systems that bring back an era that seemed to be gone forever.
This new phase began with a conservative Supreme Court rolling back key provisions of the laws that protected voting rights, arguing that they were no longer needed. Republican gerrymandering of constituency boundaries, the determination of which is also a state-level subject, has also given them firm control of state legislatures, even when they attract fewer votes. This control is now being used to subvert the electoral system.
Donald Trump is just the most recent, most active, and most unscrupulous proponent of the process now underway in America. The fact that a committed and unprincipled minority can do so much damage so quickly to what seemed like a robust democracy is worrying. One has seen problems of populist racism emerge in some former Soviet satellites without a long tradition of democracy, or in developing countries with powerful elites and fragile institutions.
The way that democracy is about to be tested in the US will bear watching around the world, to see if institutions based on principles rather than the overriding pursuit of power can survive. At the moment, the difference between a Trump and a Putin does not seem very great: in both cases, the form of institutions is retained, but their core values are gutted.
Professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz