This week celebrated one of the pillars of our democracy. Ohio joined nearly every other state on Tuesday for general elections. According to political philosopher Hannah Arendt, neither a state nor a people can be free without fair and accessible elections, for it is the use of this franchise that powers democracy. By that standard, we in the U.S. are failing as a democracy.
The failure to vote today is a societal shortcoming rather than an individual one. Our system is built in such a way to favor one type of voter: wealthy and white. Furthermore, as exhibited by the 2016 presidential election, the modern, advanced technology being developed for voting poses a threat to the security and integrity of our ballots. Specifically, as our elections have been manipulated by foreign governments and misrepresented information, perpetuated by uncontrolled corporations and media, it is critical we ensure the use of voting machines that protect the fidelity of our ballots.
Voter suppression and gerrymandering are among the most popular ways to covertly manipulate an election in favor of a particular party or candidate. However, gerrymandering is not particularly covert, with districts so malformed that they received nicknames like “Goofy kicking Donald Duck,” as was the case in Philadelphia and “the Snake by the Lake” running through Cleveland across the top of Ohio. Both have since been found unconstitutional, requiring the drawing of new maps. The latter district was among many on the Ohio Congressional map found to purposefully advantage Republican over Democratic voters in May 2019. The courts demanded the map be redrawn before the 2020 elections.
The U.S., purported to be one of the most democratic and free nations in the world, fails to prioritize voting. In some countries, voting is mandatory with penalties for not casting a ballot; however, in even more countries, election day is a national holiday, ensuring that more people have the opportunity to vote without fear of losing their job. Of the 36 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. is only one of seven which has not recognized election day as a national holiday. To wait in line for several hours in order to cast a vote is simply not an option for the single parent working multiple jobs in order to take care of their family, among many other examples.
Cleveland could do well learning from its neighbors in West Virginia and Kentucky, or even closer in Sandusky, Ohio, places which have made election day a holiday. Sandusky replaced Columbus Day with an election holiday to prioritize civic duty. Our failure to do this across the country, including in Cleveland, is synonymous with a failure to recognize all people as equal and important in electing public leaders.
The recent mandate to redraw the congressional maps was certainly a victory for the people, but a year earlier the Supreme Court upheld Ohio’s method for purging voters from the rolls, despite the Justice Department finding it inconsistent with federal law. The argument in favor of purging voter logs is often perpetuated by Republicans and the current White House occupants who so frequently cry “voter fraud.” Empirically, voter fraud is incredibly rare and false allegations further endanger voting eligibility for millions of Americans.
In Ohio, if a person does not vote in a federal election, they are mailed a notice. If they do not respond to the notice and subsequently fail to vote in the following two elections, they are removed from the rolls. The four Supreme Court justices who dissented emphasized that this type of frequent purging detrimentally affects “minority, low-income, disabled, homeless and veteran voters.” Governor Mike DeWine, however, was more than satisfied with the decision.
It is no surprise then, that his election and that of his Lieutenant Governor, Jon Husted, were suffused with voter suppression tactics in order to secure their power at the cost of, potentially, our democracy. In fact, the Supreme Court case was brought directly against Husted for his specific role in purging over two million Ohioans from the voter rolls, nearly half of whom were removed only for not voting.
Husted and DeWine both suggest purging the rolls is important to keep voting records current. However, research regarding Ohio specifically, has shown these methods disproportionately affect black and/or Democratic-voting communities. In Cuyahoga County, twice as many people who resided in neighborhoods that had supported Obama by more than 60 percent were purged from the rolls compared to those living in neighborhoods not supporting Obama.
Voter suppression and gerrymandering, both holding lengthy histories in Ohio, are a threat to the core of our democracy. This week, as people of all ages across the country went to the polls to cast their votes, millions were unable. While some fraction of these may have been due to apathy, many Americans are unable to vote because the system is working against them. Casting a vote may threaten their job and financial security, gerrymandering renders their vote insignificant and states may have purged them from their record. Our failure to encourage and prioritize truly fair, free and equal elections has the potential to render our democracy completely inept.
But it doesn’t have to be. Initiatives by people like Stacey Abrams—who has committed herself to addressing voter suppression rather than running for president—will fight for our democracy until it is what it suggests: a system built to work on behalf of all people.
It is imperative that we take our elections and democracy seriously. And in Ohio, it is even more important we emphasize equitable elections given our powerful role as a swing state, successfully voting for the winner of every presidential election except two since 1896.