Are US Elections Free and Fair?
Katherine Ashley Chen
October 12, 2021
US elections are not free or fair—socioeconomic factors and election procedures vastly hinder the representation of various demographics. Socioeconomic factors create a substantial divide between different groups’ impact on election outcomes, where people with money have a disproportionately large say on elective candidates while interest groups and economic elites have far too much influence. Additionally, political polarization has increased gerrymandering so that each party’s votes matter a different amount. Overall, American citizens’ opinions are not represented equally, in election outcomes, which is the opposite of what framers envisioned and is the opposite of equality.
First, modern politics has become so skewed towards money such that candidates who receive the most campaign donations are basically guaranteed to win and interest groups and the economic elite have a far too large say in election outcomes. Now that there are fewer limits on campaign donations, people and interest groups that are able to contribute substantial amounts of money to candidates influence election outcomes in a more significant way than those who do not have money and cannot donate to candidates. Since the economic elite and wealthy interest groups (often run by the economic elite) have more of a say in election outcomes than average citizens, not all people are represented equally, which makes elections restricted and unfair. Moreover, the economic elite frequently favor policy that does not benefit the average citizen, and can exert their influence from campaign donations to successfully elected candidates, further compounding the problem of inequality.
Additionally, intense partisan gerrymandering has led to unrepresentative voting districts, where one party’s votes are more important than another party’s. The modern climate of extreme partisan polarization has led to intense partisan gerrymandering in favor of the state legislature party in power. This, in turn, has led to unrepresentative voting outcomes, where even if a state majority favors one party, gerrymandered voting districts could lead to an outcome where the minority party still wins. In these scenarios, one party’s votes are essentially more important than the other party’s, and thus, each person’s vote is not equally represented. Because democracy is supposed to be a government of the people, unequal voting representation shows an undemocratic and unfair election. Thus, because of gerrymandering, US elections are also unjust in representing the two major parties in the US.
Although the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional, they have sidestepped many questions about partisan gerrymandering, which is even more difficult to prove. For example, in Shaw v Reno, a 1993 case about racial gerrymandering, the North Carolina legislature created a plan with only one black-majority congressional district. The US Attorney General rejected this plan, so North Carolina created a second black-majority district, though this one was in an extremely uneven shape. A group of North Carolina residents challenged the shape of this district, saying that its only purpose was to elect additional black representatives. The Supreme Court ruled that North Carolina’s resulting district was bizarre enough that it suggested separating voters based on race, and decided that while, in this case, there were noble intentions, racial gerrymandering was unconstitutional as it set a dangerous precedent for the future. In the similar 2018 case Rucho v Common Cause, plaintiffs challenged the North Carolina congressional map, saying that it was a product of partisan gerrymandering. However, the Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering claims are not judiciable due to the political question they present beyond the courts. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Kagan argued that by not intervening in political gerrymandering, the Court “encourage[s] a politics of polarization and dysfunction.” She also criticized the Court for ignoring a violation of “the most fundamental of . . . constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives.” Although in both cases plaintiffs argued that their 14th amendment Equal Protection rights were being violated, the Court ruled that questions about gerrymandering were only justiciable if they didn’t concern partisan gerrymandering, which is a political process beyond the Court. Through their decisions, the Court essentially has allowed political polarization and partisan gerrymandering, and have not intervened in the increasing inequity of US elections.
In Fed 71, Hamilton argued in favor of the power of judicial review, saying that it was essential that federal courts determine whether questionable acts of Congress are constitutional or not, and determine what the federal government should do in cases of unconstitutionality. His argument is especially applicable in this case, where congressional districts are determined by Congress members whose only goal is to remain in power. Partisan gerrymandering has rendered federal elections ineffective and unfair, and judicial review is likely one of the few ways to repair the political polarization. While the Courts have been strict on racial gerrymandering in order to ensure the equal liberty of people of races, they have not prevented partisan gerrymandering in order to ensure the equal vote of all.
On the other hand, some say that US elections are fair because everybody gets the right to vote except for (in certain states) felons, those under eighteen etc. This means that every vote technically counts the same and that winners of federal elections have been fairly selected. Still, even though everybody technically has the same right to vote, people have different opportunities to vote. For instance, minorities and people from lower socioeconomic classes often have less opportunity to vote due to less free time. Poor families are more likely to have an overwhelming amount of responsibilities, or lack of paid leave. As an example, a wealthier family may be able to afford paying for a babysitter while they go to the polls and vote. However, a poor family does not have the same resources and may have to stay at home to take care of children, which means a lower opportunity to vote.
Additionally, minorities are less likely to believe their vote counts, which also decreases their voter turnout. This means that minorities, who also often come from a lower socioeconomic class, are overall less likely to vote due to circumstances that are not within their control and thus are underrepresented in federal election outcomes. Because different groups of people have different opportunities to vote, federal elections are not free and fair, and will not be free and fair until each group of people have the same opportunity and access to voting.
In conclusion, although the US is the self-proclaimed land of the free, US elections are far from free and fair. Despite many efforts to equalize voting opportunities, different groups of people have different voting opportunities, and wealthy individuals have a disproportionately large impact on federal election outcomes. Additionally, gerrymandering and political polarization has created a divided country in which different parties in each state have different levels of influence upon the final federal election outcome. Since different people’s opinions are not represented equally in federal elections or election outcomes, federal elections are unfair and not free. While the US can take steps towards leveling the playing field in federal elections, it is unlikely that any election will be truly fair. Still, there are many steps that both the government and the people can take in order to make elections more just.