Systemic voter suppression and rules still being set for an election within days – this is American exceptionalism.
On Monday night the US supreme court voted five to three against allowing more days for counting absentee ballots in Wisconsin. Given difficulties in the postal service, Democrats wanted to see ballots that are cast before close of voting on 3 November received and counted for another six days. This decision, only a week before election day, follows a supreme court decision on 19 October, by four votes to four, to decline a bid by state Republican legislators to stop the count in Pennsylvania extending three days. But following Monday’s confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, this could be revisited.
Astonishingly, the US is still settling rules for an election due within days. And a national election is being conducted with a patchwork of state laws and regulations. Further, elected state officials – Republican or Democrat office holders – are making decisions about who goes on the roll, how many voting machines go where and how long postal votes will be counted.
And all subject to appeal to an acutely partisan court.
This is American exceptionalism. It confirms the proposition that the US is simply not a democracy, not in the sense western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are democracies. The point is already made by the electoral college, which in two of the past five presidential elections transmuted Democratic majorities – half a million for Al Gore, 3m for Hillary Clinton – into Republican wins.
The nonpartisan Brennan Centre for Justice at New York University reports that voter suppression tactics such as strict voter ID laws and cutting voting times place special burdens on racial minorities and poor voters. One such voter ID law, enacted by the Republican legislature in North Carolina, was struck down in 2016 after a federal appeals court found it targeted African-American voters “with almost surgical precision”.
If such systemic voter suppression were practised against, say, Caribbean or Asian communities in the UK or Sicilians in Italy or Māori in New Zealand, its peculiarity would be a subject of domestic scandal and international embarrassment.
The American electoral system is a shambles defying democratic norms. The contrast with our own is a reminder to Australians of our civic accomplishments – not least an independent Australian Electoral Commission. Yet don’t cheer too loudly; just about all other developed or western nation could make the boast.
Take the time limit on counting of ballots in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Section 182 of Australia’s Commonwealth Electoral Act allows 13 days for ballots to be received if they are posted before 6pm on polling day. No argument. It’s set out in a national law applying uniformly across the nation. It’s not left to the partisan instincts of a Liberal minister in Tasmania or a Labor one in the ACT, and subject to court argument days before polling starts.
Democrats in Texas boiled with indignation at last week’s decision by an elected Republican official to decree only one collection point for ballots in a county with a population of 6 million people. Australia’s uniform, nationwide electoral practice mandates a divisional electoral office in every one of the 151 federal divisions.
On 28 November a byelection will be held for the Queensland division of Groom, based in Toowoomba. Four early voting centres will open and operate for 16 days before the election. But the key principle is that public servants are in charge of this process, not an elected politician in the state government itching for a partisan edge.
Texas has long made rigged elections a speciality, as recorded in the first two volumes of Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. The tradition lives. In its Super Tuesday primary in March, black and Latino voters were forced to wait up to seven hours to cast a ballot because, critics said, the Republican-controlled state has over the past seven years closed 750 polling locations.
Guardian analysis found that the 50 counties that had gained the most black and Latino residents between 2012 and 2018 lost 542 polling sites. This compared with just 34 in the 50 counties that had gained the fewest.
As a result voters in well-off neighbourhoods glided in and out as easily as voters in an Australian election. But Texas Republican legislators had succeeded in their goal: they had discouraged Latino and black turnout by making it hard for them to vote. The last voter at Texas Southern University, a historic black college in Houston, left the booth at 2.00am, seven hours after he had entered the queue. Twitter exploded with complaints about five and seven-hour waits. Said one black clergyman, “When polling places are deliberately shut down to force working people to wait HOURS to vote, it’s a poll tax.”
It was certainly systemic voter suppression. Republican administrations across the US are free to pursue it following a 2013 supreme court case which gutted what should have been regarded as a sacrosanct statue, namely the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was secured under the Johnson administration by Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.
Australians might have suffered such outrages if our system had allowed Bjelke-Petersen’s state government in Queensland the right to determine how many polling booths will operate in federal elections and how many tables and ballot boxes will be allowed in each. Instead our elections have been governed since 1902 by commonwealth law.
Reporting on the May 2019 federal election, the Australian Electoral Commission said that most voters “wait 15 minutes or less to vote”. Its survey of voter satisfaction records 91% satisfaction with wait times.
The veteran election analyst Malcolm Mackerras told me Australia is blessed by having independent electoral commissions for state, federal and territory elections. He said: “Although Australia is a federation our federal administration of electoral laws is quite unlike that of the USA. It is done by the administration of the Australian Electoral Commission which is a genuine independent body – as is the case for the electoral commission for all six states and territories.”
Here’s a modest proposal: simply, that after inauguration day on 20 January the Australian embassy in Washington be tasked with submitting to the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president pro tempore of the Senate an offer from Australia to second to Congress half a dozen experienced officers from the office of our parliamentary counsel. Their mission would be to work with Congress to design legislation to create a US national elections commission modelled on the Australian Electoral Commission.
Comparable assistance by Australia was given at crucial times to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Timor-Leste. Paradoxically the US itself has committed to “democracy promotion” in the Middle East and North Africa. Its embassy in Ukraine has been active with the notion.
Implicitly we would be telling our great and powerful ally we respect your status as the world’s longest surviving republic with a heritage of constitutionally entrenched freedom of expression and assembly. A glorious heritage. But as the Founding Fathers acknowledged you are a republic, not a democracy. Let’s join together, furls of our flags overlapping and friendship badges adorning lapels, and make the first, faltering baby steps towards that happy goal.