A New Record Is Set for Voter Participation, But We Still Need More Democracy

Joe Biden has just set a new record in this election. He received votes from a larger proportion of the total population than any president in history. He passed 76.5 million votes in a country of 331 million people to beat Ronald Reagan’s old record of 23.09% set in 1984, and Biden might come close to the 25% level once all the votes are counted.

It has often been pointed out this year’s election featured a record number of votes cast (about 161 million) and had the highest voter turnout (around 70%) since 1900, when 73% of eligible voters participated in the presidential election.

However, “eligible” is the key term here. Women, African-Americans, Native Americans, and others were systematically excluded from voting for most of American history. The early presidents in the era of slavery (George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson) each won office with votes from less than 1% of the total US population. By 1900, William McKinley’s 7.2 million votes were less than 10% of the total population. It was only after the women’s suffrage movement and passage of the 19th Amendment a century ago that voting rates passed the 10% mark. It’s taken a century of work in defense of voting rights to finally approach 25% support for a president.

The fact that the winner of the presidential election in America still does not receive the votes of even one-quarter of the total population should be a scandal demanding immediate reform. We need to increase our commitment to electoral democracy, especially because the next election will not feature a candidate as widely despised as Donald Trump to persuade people to endure the many barriers set up to discourage voting.

The first step is enforcing the fundamental doctrine that the person who gets the most votes wins the election, a principle that has already been violated twice in this century. It could have easily happened again in the 2020 election with a swing of about 50,000 votes combined in Georgia, Wisconsin, and Arizona, despite Biden likely to win nationwide by 8 million votes once every vote is counted. Constitutional reform of the Electoral College is almost impossible, but the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, if passed by enough states to constitute a majority, would give all the electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote and ensure that democracy prevails. Other laws should be passed to make clear that Republican state legislatures cannot steal presidential elections by naming their own slate of electors, as many Trump supporters have urged and Republicans plotted to do back in 2000 before the US Supreme Court stole the election.

One scandal in our American democracy is the millions of people in occupied territories such as Puerto Rico who are denied the right to vote for president. This is taxation without representation, but a quick resolution is unlikely. However, many solutions to improve democracy are possible with state legislation or federal executive action.

The Biden Administration needs to enforce voting rights and attack the Republican efforts at voter suppression. Those long lines of voters waiting to cast a ballot are not a symbol of democracy; they’re a symbol of voter suppression, since being forced to wait for hours to vote discourages a large number of voters, and Democratic voters (especially people of color) face the longest lines. Election officials in Democratic-controlled areas need to massively increase the election infrastructure to ensure that no one waits more than 15 minutes to vote.

One reason for Biden’s record-setting vote was the enormous vote-by-mail necessitated by the Covid-19 crisis. The ease of voting by mail needs to continue even after the pandemic ends, because it may be the single biggest factor in expanding democracy in America.

Federal legislative action seems unlikely with a divided government. But states are given enormous authority under the US Constitution to run voting systems.

One of the greatest injustices in America is the denial of the right to vote to ex-felons, which is used in Florida and other states to suppress the vote for Democrats. Denying someone the right to vote because of their criminal status should be regarded as unthinkable as denying them the right to worship. And that right must be extended to everyone who is currently incarcerated.

Before Biden, the two top vote-getting presidents came after the 26th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote for 18-year-olds, Ronald Reagan in 1984 (23.09%) and Barack Obama in 2008 (22.85%). Surprisingly, there is no movement to lower the voting age to 16 (Andrew Yang became the first presidential candidate to endorse the more democratic voting age). A lower voting age will benefit democracy and encourage young people to develop an early habit of political involvement. But a lower voting age should be particularly enticing in Democratic-controlled states, since younger voters will tend to vote for Democrats, especially those who favor more support for public schools, and having more votes in Democratic states will help add to the popular vote victories of Democrats and push for the necessary reform of the Electoral College.

Choosing the side of democracy should be easy even for the centrist Democrats who are leery of radical action. Democracy is a fundamental principle in America, and an incredibly popular idea. Increasing the electorate, and making it easier for people to vote, is one of the most effective ways that Democrats can increase their likelihood of winning elections. Expanding democracy is the right strategy for Democrats, but more importantly, it’s the right thing to do.

John K. Wilson is a contributing editor of AcademeBlog.org, a 2019-20 Fellow at the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, and the author of eight books, including Trump Unveiled: Exposing the Bigoted Billionaire (OR Books).