Threats to democracy don’t only come from foreign terrorists, domestic extremists or Russian web–bots. As this week’s US elections warn us, the conscience free antics of a supposedly mainstream political party equally have the potential to erode the democratic basis of a system of government.
Could the same be happening here?
If we look at last week’s senate, gubernatorial and senate elections they may seem to have no immediate relevance to the UK. But we can see that our national parties tend to look to the US for tips and hints on campaigning, and what those demonstrate is a continuing trend in which the Republican Party receives far fewer votes than its rival, the Democrats, yet still wins a disproportionate number of actual seats, especially in the Senate, where they increased their seats despite losing the popular vote 57/43.
This has been described as a movement towards a permanent minority rule as both the Presidency and the Senate are controlled by a party which consistently receives fewer votes than its rivals.
Because that, in turn, allows the Republicans to pack the US supreme court with its nominees, that begins to give them a lock on all three strands of government, something they are keen to exploit.
How they got to that position, and how they intend to keep it, is through tactics which are, in part at least, being adopted by the Conservatives in the UK.
Of course there was first a point at which the Republicans won elections fair and square. However, once in power, especially at state governor level, they have systematically and deliberately taken a series of steps to prevent the Democrats ever winning again. Two of those actions are explicitly called for or used by the Tories here.
Firstly, there is what is euphemistically called “redistricting”. The Republicans, where they control state government, have embarked on something they call Project RedMap (red being the party colour), which is an abbreviation for “Redistricting Majority Project”. And by redrawing electoral boundaries, often into the most bizarre shapes, it has succeeded in creating an artificial balance in elections by which Republican votes have a greater effect than Democrat ones.
Now think about our city and county wards and divisions, which have both been redrawn since 2014, and the results those gave: in the city, the Tories got 79% of the seats with only 39% of the vote.
And, as I noted here in September, Cllr Neil Baker, the council’s communities chairman, was very happy indeed that the new boundaries meant that the Tories had been able to “stick all opposition votes in one seat, let them have it, win the rest”.
If you look at some of the city and county electoral boundaries now, they look more like the result of childish doodling rather than independent analysis. And that is because, like their Republican mentors, the Tories have managed to render the supposedly independent Boundary Commission wholly ineffectual, to the point where the city council leader in effect decided the ward boundaries for the city in 2014.
That looks to me like evidence of both intent and the results that flow from it.
Now, pursuing the same agenda and methods as their transatlantic fellow-travellers, the Tories want to bring in a requirement for voters to provide some form of ID when they vote.
This is one of a number of techniques used in the US which fall under the broad umbrella of of voter suppression, and it is rife in some states. Take Georgia, for example, where the Republican candidate for the Governorship, who just happened to be the person responsible for managing voter registration, contrived not only to stall over 50,000 applications to register to vote, from predominantly Democrat-leaning areas of the State, but introduced a
series of demands including, among others, dual ID to be produce on which the name of the voter had to exactly match.
Now, since most of the documents used to verify ID are those produced by corporations or other government agencies – just as they are here – the potential for errors and anomalies to be present is huge.
And of course getting those corrected is time consuming and difficult. The result: more people excluded from voting,
often at the polling stations.
More overt manipulation to suppress the vote includes moving or closing polling stations, having extremely short hours for registration offices, and having too few staff on hand.
Then they also managed to produce ballot papers which are hard to understand, use voting methods that consistently break down, and generally do as much obstructive stuff as possible. Hence the long queues routinely seen at polling stations on US TV news.
Now, thankfully we’re nowhere near that extreme. But don’t believe it’s not being thought of somewhere.
All this matters more than just who wins any given election. Because the consequence of deliberately disconnecting the result from the votes cast, and of disenfranchising people in the longer term, is to delegitimise any resulting administration.
Again, the impact of that isn’t simply to cause a rolling of the eyes and a sigh: history tells us that governments which have no legitimacy get overthrown, usually forcibly.
So when you hear or see complaints from minority parties about electoral tampering, don’t get hung up on the details: look at the consequences, and think about whether allowing one party to tamper with long established independent systems of voting might have a rather worse effect than just enabling an idiotic government to be in power.