By Jim Condos, Vermont’s Secretary of State
I’ve never been known to sugarcoat things, so I’m going to be frank. Recent events are causing increasing concerns that our democracy is in peril. Let me explain.
Voting is the foundation of our democracy. Since my first day as Secretary of State, and before that as a State Senator, I’ve worked to encourage voter participation by breaking down barriers to ensure eligible Vermont citizens are able to vote.
First, let me say I am proud to live in a state where our focus is on increasing access to the ballot box. To this end, we’ve made great progress in Vermont.
In January, we implemented same-day voter registration, making it easier for Vermonters to register and vote on Election Day.
Also in January, with the Department of Motor Vehicles, we implemented automatic voter registration – when an eligible voter receives/renews their license at the DMV they are either registered to vote, or their registration updates their current address, providing for more accurate voter lists and even greater election integrity.
Both same-day and automatic voter registration passed Vermont’s legislature with strong tri-partisan support, and I was proud to initiate and support these important objectives.
Here’s the point: because voting is the foundation of our democracy, government has a responsibility to make voting easy and accessible for every eligible voter. Unfortunately, across this country, we are seeing an increased erosion of voting rights in many states.
I am deeply troubled by the announcement that the President signed an executive order establishing a commission to review alleged voter fraud in our elections. Since the 2016 election, President Trump has made repeated unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud. Credible studies have shown over and over again that widespread voter fraud simply does not exist, and election officials from across the country, Democrat and Republican, agree.
So why the brazen claims of widespread voter fraud?
I believe these unproven claims are an effort to set the stage to weaken and skew our democratic process through a systematic national effort of voter suppression and intimidation.
Let’s be honest: the real voter fraud that is occurring is the active campaign to roll back voting rights. The President’s unsubstantiated claims have emboldened these efforts. Photo ID laws, like those in Texas, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Alabama, force citizens to travel over 100 miles to their closest DMV, even though they might be poor, disabled, or unable to drive. Other states have also pursued enactment of some form of voter ID law, many of which have been found by the courts to be outright unconstitutional.
Restrictions on early voting periods, limiting access, due to distance or time, to registration and voting locations, and overly aggressive purging of eligible voters from voter rolls are all examples of ways in which some states are suppressing voter participation and discouraging certain eligible voters from having a voice in elections.
These attacks on voting rights have a sole aim: to disenfranchise lower-income, student, senior and minority voters. It’s that simple, and the courts have started to recognize this.
The fact that Vice President Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach have been announced as Chair and Vice Chair of this commission confirms my worst fears. Both are unabashed supporters of restrictive voter ID laws, as they exaggerate claims of voter fraud.
Secretary Kobach has championed some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country. The leadership of this commission is a clear prelude to what I expect to be a reinvigorated nationwide campaign promoting strict voter suppression laws and voter intimidation.
How do we fight back? We start at home and lead by example. Automatic voter registration is a system every state, regardless of the party in power, can and should support. Everyone should stand behind generous early voting periods and ample registration opportunities right up to, and even on the same day as an election.
Our Vermont elections will continue to put voters first.
In the coming months and years ahead, we need leaders to stand up and denounce these attacks on our democratic ideals. We must make decisions about how we conduct our elections based on facts, not fear. We cannot allow the President’s unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud scare us into unravelling the threads of our democratic process.
We must continue to move forward, not backwards – our democracy is at stake.
The Democratic primary is beginning to descend into more or less the same hell as is the Republican primary.
Are we approaching the final act of the two party system? Isn’t it about time?
In the U.S., we’re given to enshrining arbitrary social constructs, such as capitalism=good and socialism=bad, in the pantheon of sacred truisms that simply will not be challenged. The primacy of our two party system is one of those enshrined assumptions that deserves renewed scrutiny.
This system emerged in the infancy of our nation when its population was more or less homogenous and the practical value of cooperation was pretty generally accepted.
While growth and economic expansion was the primary goal of the young nation, unbridled immigration was a way to maintain a cheap labor force and gain entrepreneurial preeminence in the modern world.
As the population inevitably grew more and more diverse, there was never any thought given to retooling the one-size fits all, conservative vs. liberal divide represented in the rigid two party system.
We limped along, giving one side and then the other control in pretty rapid succession, leaving more and more individual viewpoints out of the conversation or dissatisfied with the available parameters.
Polarization within the two parties and distrust of government has resulted in a crippled process.
The party system has come close to going off the rails on a few occasions, but the 2016 primary race has taken us to a new low, with both parties seeing meaningful challenges to the party elite from an unyielding base on the perimeter.
‘Closed’ primaries, superdelegates, coin-tosses and all the rest are reflections of how undemocratic and arbitrary the two party system is. Somehow, these two ‘clubs’ have been allowed to seize the system, and because they are autonomous unto themselves, they are allowed to make all their own rules. Anyone who wants to play must join one of the two clubs or be reviled as a spoiler.
Sometimes, as in the case of the New York primary, it’s made very difficult for independents to gain a vote in either club.
While a closed primary may protect the establishment candidate on his/her path to the nomination, in the long run, it doesn’t do the party any favors. Independents can and will vote in the general election, so taking their preference into consideration in the primary would seem to be an essential first move.
We frown on business monopolies but have surrendered our democracy to a similar scheme.
Now we have come rather abruptly to the logical conclusion of such exclusivity, with both parties moving to opposite polls and gridlock resulting in Congress. There is no possibility of coalition, as there is in the Canadian Parliament where several parties successfully compete and collaborate in the process.
If we gain nothing more toward reforming the election process, job one should of course be reversing the Citizens United decision. Job two? Challenge the constitutionality of closed primaries. In a nation where the majority of voters identify as ‘independents,’ closed primaries represent good ol’ fashion voter suppression.
Aren’t we better than this?
Republicans, whose star seems to be on the wane, have been trying to suppress the vote of all but the narrow sector to whom their message still appeals. Democrats, on the other hand, project a message of inclusion which should bring far more people into the process. Why is it not more successful?
Bernie Sanders’ support demographic is a particular challenge, being heavily weighted with new voters.
It annoys me when media types refer to young people as being ‘unreliable’ when it comes to voting. The implication is that they are a monolith with one defining characteristic: they are undependable. That is so unfair.
In fact, younger voters tend to be far more mobile than their established elders…not because of any particular lack of reliability, but out of sheer necessity. They must move much more frequently simply to be in the vicinity of their schools and employment opportunities.
If they have already left school and have a job, they are probably renters. In the tight rental market young people on skimpy budgets often must move from one municipality to another nearby in order to pursue more affordable housing opportunities. Theirs is a constantly shifting environment of economic instability, something that the current voter registration practices do not recognize.
As teenagers, these good citizens registered to vote as soon as they were of legal age, and then life took over and set them on a dead run. A couple of years go by, an important national primary or election looms; and thinking of themselves as already registered, a lot of busy young voters completely forget that, having moved once or twice in the interim, they are no longer qualified to vote without re-registering.
They show up at the polls on election day and are turned away, after which some simply abandon the democratic habit.
As of this writing, same day registration is available in only eight states. Vermont will soon join that number, but only in 2017.
This is another stupid flaw in the system that no doubt disenfranchises huge numbers of individuals who would otherwise be gladly participating in the process.
Why should national elections be subject to restrictive voting rules imposed by the individual states? Shouldn’t there be a national voter registry, accessible anywhere in the nation?
Like efforts by the Republicans to disenfranchise minority groups whom they view as unfriendly monoliths rather than individual constituents, the voter registration practices that make it difficult for students and people with no fixed address to participate in the process strongly favor the continuance of establishment politics over those of innovation and progressive
This does not serve the best interests of our democracy, nor does it bode well for our international competitiveness in the future..