Inequality, Voting and American Democracy. The American political system has always prevented electoral participation by certain social groups, especially those with the fewest resources. The obstacles to participation have changed over time and today formal barriers to participation have largely disappeared. Nevertheless, voting turnout has declined over the twentieth century, and the poor and less educated continue to vote at a lower rate than those who are wealthier and better educated. Discuss:
Past and Present Barriers to Electoral Participation. In reality, virtually every society has some type of framework in place to ensure that some people are "more equal" than others, even if these conventions are not codified in the nation's laws. The United States is no exception, although to the extent that such practices exist in this country is the extent to which the 14th Amendment is abrogated. Nevertheless, history has shown time and again that those in power will attempt to ensure that they stay in power by whatever means necessary. For example, in his book, Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction, Kousser (1999) points out that U.S. Senate investigations in 1877 and 1878 clearly documented flagrant white supremacist violence by the Ku Klux Klan and others that kept many blacks from the polls. "Racially discriminatory voting restrictions and facially neutral laws administered in a discriminatory fashion discouraged others," they report, "and blatant ballot box stuffing and fraudulent counting negated the votes of many who managed to overcome other obstacles to voting.... It was neither conservative honor nor self-interest but the continued struggles of African-Americans and their liberal white allies that preserved partial black suffrage for so long" (22). Until 1965, in fact, the individual states were free to establish whatever ballot qualifications they chose for their voters (Cain & Miller 110).
According to these authors, (1998), the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965 served as a powerful tool for overcoming many past obstacles to voting for minority groups that existing in the past. "Initially and dramatically," they say, "the ban on literacy tests, poll taxes, and other obstacles to enfranchisement led to the registration of over a half million new southern black voters within two years of the VRA's enactment in 1965" (Cain & Miller 141). Notwithstanding the progress made to date in reforming the voting laws that prevented marginalized citizens from actively participating in the electoral process, a number of constraints continue to preclude many people in the U.S. from voting; these issues are discussed further below.
Why Some Citizens are Less Likely to Vote. A common phrase heard during the past presidential election (or two, or three) was "I don't like either of these candidates, but ____ [fill-in-the-blank] appears to represent the lesser of two evils" (or words to that effect). In the American two-part political system where the winner is undoubtedly going to be yet another rich, white male candidate for the foreseeable future, some people may question whether their individual interests can represent any sort of important constituency for such candidates. According to Winders (1996), "In the 1996 U.S. presidential election, a mere 49% of the voting-age population went to the polls. Not since 1924 had a majority of eligible voters abstained from a presidential election. This historic low turnout is part of a larger decline that began in the 1960s" (833). In this regard, there are generally two types of factors that have been used to explain why some citizens are less likely to vote than others:
1) individual attributes, such as demographics, individual attitudes, and cultural values; and, 2) political institutions, including political systems, party structures, and election procedures (Winders 834).
Winders adds yet another factor to explain this historic discrepancy in voter turnout: "Fluctuations of voter turnout throughout U.S. history are partly a function of ongoing class struggles" (834). Three fundamental processes are involved in this class struggle that have affected voter turnout throughout U.S. history:
1) conflict and consolidation among dominant class segments;
2) social movements; and, 3) demobilization of and by political parties (Winders 834).
As the foregoing social forces ebb and flow in their respective balances of influence, their ability to affect the outcome of elections is increased or decreased according to their ability to consolidate power in their own camps. Although grass roots organizations can sway a local constituency, in order for these forces to assume any real influence, there must be a widespread movement involved. For instance, coordinated properly, "These processes affect the amount of political mobilization," Winders says, "thereby guiding the significant shifts in turnout" (834). While many reforms have been enacted and even more envisioned in recent years, much of the Old Guard approach to candidate selection remains in place that affects voter turnout as well. According to Steger, the various voting reforms over the past three decades or so have provided additional opportunities for lesser known and outsider candidates in the presidential nominating process; however, these opportunities have not endured. "The shift to open and binding primaries and the proliferation of candidate-centered campaigns to compete in those primaries," he says, "changed the resources and strategies needed by candidates seeking a major party's presidential nomination" (727). In the 1970s, for example, the ability of a presidential candidate to secure a party's nomination depended on the ability of the candidate to obtain commitments from party leaders who were responsible for selecting delegates to the national convention. "In the post-reform era," Steger points out, "candidates must appeal to large numbers of potential primary voters" (728).
During the seventies, the requirements for such candidate-centered campaigns were sufficiently low to allow more presidential hopefuls to compete without significant party support in an effort to attain support from potential primary voters; however, over the course of the past 20 years or so, Steger notes that the "rising costs of candidate-centered campaigns, front loading, and more scrutinizing media coverage have combined to diminish the opportunities of dark-horse candidates seeking the presidential nomination of one of the major political parties" (728). Those candidates lacking support from a major party today are therefore less able to compete for primary votes as the costs of nominating campaigns have increased beyond the means of all but those of, for example, someone with Rose Perot's wealth. Today, Steger reports that "Lesser known and outsider candidates can run, but their odds of winning the nomination have declined since the 1970s" (728). This dilution of differences between the frontrunners in political contests, particularly presidential campaigns, has turned off many American voters who would just as likely vote for "none of the above" if given the opportunity. "Without viable options, voters' power to choose may be little more than a plebiscitary vote of confidence (or no confidence) of the mediating choices of those who define voters' options" (emphasis added) (Held 166, cited in Steger). Clearly, these social forces represent one fundamental way that voters are influenced to vote for one candidate over another, but a number of other approaches exist as well which are discussed further below.
Ways in Which Voters Decide to Vote. Given the paucity of real choices among some of the presidential candidates fielded in recent years by both major political parties, many voters may feel that flipping a coin is as legitimate a method as any in selecting a candidate; however, other common features in the voter decision-making process include input from party leaders, campaign contributors, interest groups, and the media by providing or denying the resources candidates require to effectively compete for primary voters' support (Steger 727).
Cain, Bruce E. And Kenneth P. Miller. "Voting Rights Mismatch: The Challenge of Applying the Voting Rights Act to 'Other Minorities.'" In Mark E. Rush (Ed.), Voting Rights and Redistricting in the United States. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Held, David. Models of Democracy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987.
Kousser, J. Morgan. Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Steger, Wayne P. (2000). "Do Primary Voters Draw from a Stacked Deck? Presidential Nominations in an Era of Candidate-Centered Campaigns." Presidential Studies Quarterly 30(4):727.
Winders, Bill. (1999). "The Roller Coaster of Class Conflict: Class Segments, Mass Mobilization, and Voter Turnout in the U.S., 1840-1996." Social Forces 77(3):833.
5) The Supreme Court, Democracy and the Political Process. While the Framers sought to create what Hamilton called the least dangerous branch; the Supreme Court is perhaps just as powerful and just as susceptible to internal and external political pressures as other branches of government. Discuss the following:
The Role of the Supreme Court in a "Democratic" Society. In the United States, the system of checks and balances is supposed to ensure that the role of the Supreme Court is a regulating and moderating one, just as the role of the other respective branches serve their functions to ensure that one branch does not become too powerful or wield an inordinate amount of influence at any given point in time. While…