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Election Reform

It’s Time for Electoral Integrity in a Representative Democracy

This is an independent opinion. Want to respond? Write your own commentary! Email [email protected].

It has become abundantly clear to most Americans over the past 20 years that the United States is a representative democracy in which not all votes count the same. Per capita, individual voters in Wyoming and North Dakota have a far greater impact on the results of the electoral college or decisions in the Senate than, say, voters in California. This is not an accident. Representative democracies are set up so that this sort of inequality exists. Often, as in the United States, this is a tool to bind large, complicated electorates peacefully into one polity.

Functional Republics depend on two other features that make citizens willing to tolerate this fundamental inequality. First, these representative democracies govern best when they govern by consensus. This means that people representing smaller states in the United States understand the need to work closely with representatives of the more populous states whose voters are under-represented. When this sort of compromise exists, the potentially distorting effects of the over representation of small states can be offset by the attentiveness of their representatives to the interests of citizens living in larger states. It also means that the president, who represents all Americans, needs to govern in a way that reaches out to and draws upon the support of the largest possible group of citizens.

A representative democracy that limits the ability of people to vote is one that has erected both structural and practical barriers to the full participation of citizens in its political life.

Many people have discussed the corrosive effects that the decline of political compromise has had on our country. There is another feature of representative democracy that is perhaps equally important but less frequently discussed. Citizens who believe that their votes can be cast and counted without problem are untroubled by the consequences of a system built around unequal geographical representation. This ensures that all citizens can play a role in shaping the conversations their representatives have about how the country can be governed. Citizens of representative democracies can then accept the results of a political process whose rules are understood and observed by all, provided their right to express their choice of a representative is respected.

This is what makes the recent assault on voting access so disconcerting. These efforts undercut two of the fundamental promises that make a Republic work. If peoples’ votes are deliberately suppressed, their voices are excluded from the conversations and consensus building required to craft broadly supported legislation. More importantly, these moves exacerbate the challenges posed by a representative democracy designed to value some peoples’ votes more than others. A representative democracy that limits the ability of people to vote is one that has erected both structural and practical barriers to the full participation of citizens in its political life.

These obstacles can kill a representative democracy. In the last decades of the Roman Republic, the representative democracy that served as a model for our own founding fathers, violence and intimidation sometimes prevented citizens from voting. These barriers meant that, when contentious issues were raised, both sides could claim to speak for the popular will—and voters could not resolve these competing assertions. No one could say what the popular will actually was when the people were inhibited from expressing it. 

We are nearing this point in the United States. A free, fair, and completely inclusive election this year offers us a way back. Continued popular faith in our Republic depends on it.

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About the Author

Edward Watts

Edward Watts is the Vassiliadis Endowed Chair and Professor of History at UCSD. He is the author of six books, most recently "Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny."

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