By Martin Woodley
The class basis of American democracy becomes clear once an in depth appraisal is made of the institutional structure of American politics. When Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed as a member of the Supreme Court by the Senate, five of the nine justices will have been appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote. The Republican senators that voted in favour of her confirmation have been elected by 15 million fewer votes than the Democratic senators that did not support her confirmation. Yet, she will be confirmed and will give the conservative justices an unassailable majority.
As conflicts within American politics have become sharper over the past decade since the financial crash — greatly accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic — the lack of importance of the popular vote has become more revealed. In the general election of 2016 the Republicans held the House of Representatives even though the Republican caucus obtained fewer votes than the Democratic caucus. And it is well known that Donald Trump received 3 million votes less than did Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. The undemocratic nature of American democracy however is not a recent phenomenon — indeed it was designed exactly that way precisely to prevent the emergence of mass politics independent of the bourgeoisies. There are two major components of this undemocratic democracy. Firstly there is voter suppression either formal or informal which is aimed primarily at black and Latinx communities. Secondly there is the over representation of rural and suburban areas compared to urban areas. These two components work hand in glove and explain the major features of the class politics of representation in the USA.
Class politics and voter suppression
After the civil war the USA rapidly industrialised, quickly surpassing every other imperialist power. This led to a rapid expansion in the working class especially in the northern cities. As a countermeasure to the growth of the urban working class, migrants from the East and immigrants mainly from Germany and Scandinavia were settled in land seized from the indigenous population who were driven onto reservations. The settlers were provided with agricultural colleges and cheap loans to enable them to manage, equip and mechanise the farms. This settler population provided a counterweight to the rapidly growing urban population, who were now being supplemented by migration of former slaves from the southern states.
Of course, the urban working class was maintained as a divided entity as a result of the continuance of white supremacy, one consequence of which was the exclusion of blacks from the organisations of the working class. In this way, the relationship between the white organised workers and black workers excluded from workers organisations became similar to the relationship between the working class in the imperialist countries and the workers in the colonies[i]. By 1894 Eugene Debs, leader of the American Railway Union in a strike against the Pullman Company, was unable to convince members of his union to accept black railroaders. This resulted in blacks serving as strike-breakers for the Pullman Company.
However, the rapid industrialisation resulted in an increase in the urban population as a whole which the rural population could not keep up with. There was therefore the need to politically over-represent the rural population compared to the urban population, as well as employing methods of suppressing the votes of the urban population.
There has now therefore evolved the current situation whereby representation in state legislatures and the House of Representatives from counties and congressional districts are determined not by population but by land. Therefore, sparsely populated rural counties and congressional districts receive the same representation as densely populated urban counties and districts. It is worth quoting at length from a recent comment piece by David Litt[ii];
By 1960, American representation, or lack thereof, had become almost farcical. Maricopa county, Arizona, which contained the city of Phoenix and more than half the states population, elected just one-third of the states representatives to Congress. ”One state senator represented Los Angeles county, which had a population of more than 6 million people,” … ”while another represented three northern California rural counties with a total population of 14,294.” Author Anthony Lewis provides an example from Connecticut: 177,000 citizens of Hartford elected two members of the state house of representatives; so did the town of Colebrook, population 592. (The most egregious example of what political scientists call malapportionment was surely in New Hampshire, where one districts assemblyman represented a constituency of three.)
Another strategy politicians used to maintain control despite dwindling popular support was to distribute power by county rather than by population. The most infamous of these was Georgia’s ”county unit system”. Created in 1917, the system gave each county a set number of votes in Democratic primaries: urban counties received six votes, towns received four, and rural counties received two. Atlanta’s Fulton county had a population 80 times larger than that of three least populous counties combined, yet they received an identical six votes. Because Democrats dominated Georgia, the winner of the party primary was the de facto winner of the general election which made the county unit system a powerful tool for disenfranchising urban voters in general, and Black voters (who were more likely to live in cities) in particular.
The increasing margin of suppression
There were an estimated six million people prevented from voting due to felony laws in 2016. Since black people are greatly over represented in the criminal justice system, felony disenfranchisement mainly affects the black community. Three US states, including the key swing state of Florida, permanently remove voting rights from anyone convicted of a felony – a measure that disenfranchises more than 10 percent of all Floridians. According to the Co-operative Congressional Election Study roughly seven million people were prevented from voting in 2008 and perhaps five million more were imperilled by new voter suppression methods in 2011[iii]. The Sentencing Project released a new study[iv] estimating that 5.2 million people will be barred from voting in the 2020 election due to a felony conviction. In 2016, that number was over 6 million. A big finding in the study: 9 states are barring at least 10% of their adult Black population from voting in 2020. These are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, South Dakota, and Tennessee. Tennessee’s is the highest at 22%.
The history of voter suppression in the USA is long — since it was endemic in the south under Jim Crow, in the north “specially tailored registration requirements and shifting voting times were employed to suppress the votes of urban, mostly immigrant working class voters.” Gerrymandering alone was enough to maintain minority rule in state legislatures, but to do the same for state-wide office including senators, governors and attorney generals, once they were popularly elected it was necessary to continue suppressing urban voters indefinitely. Furthermore, since the Electoral College by which the President is elected is also determined by such state-wide and district elections, the margin of suppression also affects the presidential election. As a result, US voting levels fell dramatically from 1896 onward. Prior to the present election cycle, they were far lower than other well-established democracies, primarily because millions of poor, minority and young voters remained unregistered.
Following the enactment of the Voting Rights Act the franchise was massively extended. Since then however there have been ever increasing attempts to suppress voter turnout mainly among the African-American community. When the Republicans won their largest number of state legislative seats since 1928, the Brennan Centre for Justice[v] asserted that
• 41 states introduced 180 restrictive laws;
• 34 states introduced photo ID laws;
• 17 states introduced proof of citizenship requirements;
• 16 states introduced bills to limit registration;
• 9 states introduced bills to reduce early voting periods.
Many of these attempts failed, but quite a few succeeded. In the period leading to the 2012 Presidential election the biggest wave of new voting restrictions in many decades was taking place amounting to the shaping of state legislative districts so as to maintain power in rural districts, long after they ceased being home to a majority of voters. A major milestone was achieved when North Carolina passed a 2013 law that limited voting options on which the states black citizens disproportionately relied, including same-day voting, early voting and out-of-precinct voting. This led via a Supreme Court ruling to the gutting of the Voting Rights Act which required states with a previous history of voter discrimination to get federal pre-clearance before making changes to their voting systems and infrastructure. Since this ruling these states have closed 1,688 polling places.
Voter suppression picked up more steam following the Presidential election in 2016. Trump formed an Advisory Commission on Electoral Integrity after claiming, without evidence, that 3 to 5 million illegal votes had been cast in 2016, and has since intervened on behalf of states when federal judges have ruled against their voter ID laws. Civil rights groups have alleged that 340,000 voters had been wrongfully purged from voter lists prior to the 2018 midterm elections[vi].
It is well known that in the approach to the campaign season proper Trump took steps to ensure that the USPS could not deliver a reliable service for the purpose of mail-in balloting. This took place, despite the aged and sick being dependent on the service for their social security and prescriptions, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Given the problems deliberately created by Trump for mail in voting, at the time of writing more than 62 million ballots have been cast through in-person early ballots, with long lines and several hours long waiting times reported at polling sites in Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana and Ohio, among other states. This has been compounded by the aforementioned closure of polling stations. For example since 2013, the number of registered voters in Georgia has grown by nearly two million people, while the number of polling locations has been cut state-wide by 10 percent, according to the Georgia Public Broadcasting and ProPublica analysis[vii].
[i] Because trade unions organized by white workers generally excluded blacks, black workers began to organize on their own. In December 1869, 214 delegates attended the Colored National Labor Union convention in Washington, D.C. This union was a counterpart to the white National Labor Union.
[ii] Ohio’s quarter-mile early-voting lines? That’s what voter suppression looks like; David Litt; The Guardian; 15 October 2020; https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/oct/15/ohio-us-election-voter-suppression
[iii] Paul Rosenberg; https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2012/10/28/democracy-denied-millions-of-americans-blocked-from-voting/
[iv] Estimates of people denied voting rights due to a felony conviction; The Sentencing Project; 2020; https://www.sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Locked-Out-2020.pdf
[vi] Georgia’s Secretary of State, Ryan Kemp – who oversees voting in the state, and just happened to be running as Republican candidate for Governor against Stacey Abrams – was accused of purging 1.5 million voters from state electoral rolls – disproportionately blacks and minorities (John Hendren; 6 Nov 2018; https://www.aljazeera.com/videos/2018/11/06/usmidterm-polls-minorities-in-georgia-face-voter-suppression/. The Brennan Center for Justice says the number of voters purged skyrocketed under Kemp, reaching an estimated 1.5 million between the 2012 and 2016 elections. That total is nearly twice the number purged between 2008 and 2012, the group said in a report. Patrick Strickland; 30 Oct 2018; https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/10/30/us-midterms-georgias-early-voting-marred-by-suppression-claims). The civil rights groups said that similar voter purges were happening in 26 states across the US. The NAACP filed complaints with the state election officials alleging that some machines were changing early votes for Abrams to votes for Kemp.
[vii] US elections: Long lines underscore multiple barriers to voting; Joseph Stepansky; 17 Oct 2020; https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/17/long-lines-for-us-early-voting-underscore-hidden-barriers.