Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
November 27, 2020

America’s broken democracy needs a complete overhaul, starting with expanded suffrage

By LAURA WADSTEN | November 8, 2020

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This morning, former Vice President Joe Biden claimed victory over incumbent President Donald Trump. The win is historic — Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has shattered multiple glass ceilings — but our country didn’t miraculously transform overnight. Now that we can breathe a sigh of relief, it’s worth taking a closer look at the state of our democracy. 

We knew this election would be contentious. We expected chaos, especially as the sitting president continuously promoted distrust in the results before any ballots were even cast. Once again, we let polls deceive us, drawing into question the value of these predictions. Henry Olsen, a political commentator known for predicting election results with impressive accuracy, wrote this week that many pollsters are failing because they cling to outdated trends and methods. I would argue his assessment can be applied more broadly — the way Americans approach democracy is outdated. 

America fashions itself as the poster child of representative democracy. Yet, is it really representative if only about half of adults cast a ballot? As of Saturday afternoon, Biden had collected over 75 million votes while Trump pulled in just over 70 million. Based on 2019 estimates from the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, the voting age population of this country is around 255,200,373. Using these figures, around 40% of American adults did not vote in our election — either by choice or due to legal and political barriers

While this rough estimate paints an incomplete picture of turnout, participation in our democracy is too low. Only about 27% and 29% of Americans voted for Trump and Biden, respectively. We can’t expect a national leader to represent all of us when support from less than one-third of the country grants them the presidency. 

Our winner-takes-all approach means a candidate can win with very few votes, as long as they beat their opponents. Elections are often decided by narrow margins and can even result in a tie — as did the race for a Kentucky House seat in 2018. While extending suffrage would not make Americans agree more, an important question remains: Would the margins be this close if all American adults voted?

We badly need to engage more Americans in the political process if we want the government to properly represent us. Voter apathy is real and understandable — the cracks in our democracy are widening and becoming harder to ignore. In 2018, Hopkins Political Science professor Yascha Mounk wrote in The Atlantic, “The levers of power are not controlled by the people.” We need to put these levers back into the people’s hands — all of the people.

Nobody has forgotten 2016, when Donald Trump became president despite amassing nearly three million fewer votes than his opponent Hillary Clinton. The culprit then was the electoral college, an archaic institution that redistributes electoral power away from the masses. Established to insulate the federal government from the uneducated public and perpetuated by Southerners who used slaves to garner more electoral votes, this defunct democratic apparatus has long been contrary to our nation’s best interests. Abolishing the electoral college is long overdue. 

Yet, this alone will not fix our elections. Gerrymandering, voter suppression laws and felon disenfranchisement cannot be resolved without significant reform. American democracy needs an extreme makeover, starting with a constitutional amendment guaranteeing all American adult residents, regardless of citizenship or criminal record, the right to vote. 

This idea is neither anti-American nor anti-Democratic — the Constitution doesn’t even directly guarantee the right to vote to citizens. Arkansas was the last state to prohibit noncitizens from voting in state elections in 1926 and some municipalities in the U.S., including multiple in Maryland, allow non-citizen residents to vote in local elections. In fact, our current laws violate the American ideal of “no taxation without representation”; permanent residents and undocumented immigrants pay billions in taxes annually. 

I’m not suggesting that any person who happens to be in America on Election Day should be able to cast a ballot — voters would need to prove that they had lived in America for a period of time, no less than a year, prior to the election. However, the term “American” has many definitions, and legal status is perhaps the least meaningful one. If you live in America and pay taxes, you should be able to vote. 

To ensure this policy is meaningfully executed, voting needs to be more accessible. We must either make Election Day a federal holiday or move it to Saturday and expand the number of polling locations nationwide. We’ll need to fight to make sure these reforms are not eroded by partisan political maneuvers like unnecessarily strict Voter ID requirements

None of these changes will materialize overnight — or perhaps even our lifetimes. Still, it’s never bad to fight for a more representative democracy. Without an overhaul of the democratic process, America will never live up to its values. 

Laura Wadsten is a junior studying International Studies and Medicine, Science and the Humanities from Brainerd, Minn. She is the Opinions Editor of The News-Letter.

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