Voter registration at Hartford City Hall. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

There is some movement afoot in the Connecticut legislature to make voting easier permanently, not just during the pandemic. The matter is complicated by our state constitution, but one pattern holds depressingly clear. Here, as elsewhere, Republicans mainly oppose easier ballot access.

The idea that one of our two viable political parties has evolved into an anti-democratic institution- one that does not want free and fair elections with high voter turnout whose results are respected — is almost too upsetting to contemplate. But as Republican machinations graduate from voter purges and computer-assisted gerrymandering to their congressional attempt to overthrow a national election, it is incumbent on those of us who would think clearly about America to cope with this reality. Global warming is no fun to think about either, but not thinking about it won’t help.

A good first step in understanding our situation is to acknowledge that throughout human history, representative democracy with a wide voter base has hardly been the norm. We in this country have had the exquisite good fortune to be able to take it for granted until lately, but in the big picture it’s the exception not the rule.

After the USSR dissolved and the Berlin Wall came down, there was a triumphalist moment in “political science” when some academics argued that liberal democracy had clearly won the battle of ideas and would vanquish all competitors forthwith, but “the end of history” didn’t quite happen. Ours is certainly not the only polity in which liberal democracy is endangered or has never arrived. There is nothing inevitable about a system like ours, and nothing indestructible about it once established.

The average human being has not, while evolving from other primates, developed an instinctual and deep-seated love of democracy. Realistically, we want what we want and need what we need, and tend to like a political dispensation that we think will satisfy our needs and wants. If we don’t think fair elections with lots of people voting are going to deliver the results we want, we are not genetically programmed to say “Oh well, I guess it’s for the best.” Whether from the perspective of world history or of human behavior, there has never been any reason to be complacent about the continued existence of a system like ours.

In the case of the contemporary GOP, the turn against democracy is not especially mysterious. This is a minority party. A Pew Research Center study from October 2020 found that 29% of  registered voters identified as Republican. It’s an unsurprising result in terms of banner Republican policies: most Americans favor a woman’s right to choose, and the GOP isn’t having it; most Americans understand about climate change, and the GOP basically denies it; most Americans are having a more or less hard time making ends meet, and the GOP likes the federal minimum wage where it is, at $7.25/hr. How does a party like that win?

Certainly there are many independent voters who vote Republican, but it’s worth remembering that of three GOP presidential victories this century, two were popular-vote losses. Gore got more votes than Bush in 2000, and Clinton got way more than Trump in 2016. She beat him by about as many votes as Bush beat Kerry by in 2004, and we did not consider that to be a close election. The GOP happens to benefit, in a huge and anti-democratic way, from the electoral college.

It benefits similarly from the structure and behavior of the Senate. A vote for a senator in bright-red Wyoming is 67.6 times as powerful as a vote for a senator in deep-blue California, because that’s the population differential, and they each get two senators. Once they’re in, these minority-party senators thrive in a body in which plain-old majority rule is now a rare exception; it generally takes 60 votes to do anything.

The Republican party also benefits from some apparently natural voting (or non-voting) patterns. Young people tend not to vote Republican, but then again they tend not to vote at all. The same is true of poor people. White people are more likely to vote, and to vote Republican, than non-whites, but here the result is not especially natural. Selective voter suppression has been the norm throughout U.S. history, with a relatively brief pause while the Voting Rights Act had teeth.

With all of these advantages — natural, unnatural, and happenstance– they lost in 2020; Trump was just too repellent. So now the Republican party is against our elections. It wanted the right to put them aside. When the courts wouldn’t do it, they tried it in Congress.

I don’t think it makes sense to think of this as an aberration. The Republican party in America is not well-situated to win free and fair elections in which lots of people vote. They know it, and will probably continue to act accordingly. They don’t seem to care what gets broken along the way.

This is what we face.

Eric W. Kuhn lives in Middletown.

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