How to Really Unrig the Election

Donald Trump is absolutely right that the election is rigged. He's just right for the wrong reasons

How to Really Unrig the Election

Donald Trump is absolutely right that the election is rigged. He's just right for the wrong reasons

Donald Trump’s repeated assertions that this year’s election is “rigged” have snowballed to the point where the billionaire is now the first major party nominee in history to not agree to abide by the results of an American election. Trump’s assertions are startling for a number of reasons, not least of which is that the foundation of our democracy is the peaceful transition of power when the will of the people demands it. But the most shocking thing is that he’s absolutely, 100 percent right: This election is rigged.

But it’s not rigged against him—and not just because it’s hard for anything to be rigged against a straight, white, male billionaire from New York City. It’s rigged against the American people, particularly poor and non-white Americans, just like every other election in American history has been.

It’s easy to point to historical ways in which American democracy was a game played on a grossly tilted playing field. At our founding, only white male property owners could vote. No surprise, then, that only white male property owners held office. Eventually tenants were allowed to vote, then minorities (to varying degrees based on when and where they lived), then women, then young adults, then African Americans in the South (again). In fact, there have been so many advances in suffrage during our nation’s history that it’s easy to look at the landscape and believe that we’ve enfranchised every single eligible person who could possibly claim a right to it.

The problem is that our oppression of voters didn’t go away; it just went into the shadows. While the days of George Wallace, the infamous Alabama governor who openly declared  “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” are over, voter oppression continues to this very day. We may claim to no longer tolerate poll taxes and literacy tests, but we still have completely unnecessary and unjustified restrictions on voting that diminish and restrict the ability of the poor—particularly poor, urban minorities—to exercise the most fundamental right in our democracy.


Gerrymandering is the worst culprit of racial oppression since Jim Crow. Although we’ve written about this in greater detail before, this practice is so nefarious that it bears revisiting.

Every 10 years, states have to redraw their political districts to account for the most recent Census data. Gerrymandering is the act of drawing those lines for purely political reasons. The problem is that state legislatures like ours get to redraw their own districts, so the party in control redraws them to disenfranchise their political opponents. Here’s what I wrote back in February:

Pennsylvania is a great (ok, terrible) example of gerrymandering. In 2014, there were about 4 million registered Democrats and about 3 million registered Republicans. You would expect, then, that Democrats would have a majority in the state House of Representatives. If all held according to averages, the state House should have something like 116 Democrats and 87 Republicans.  But, thanks to gerrymandering, it’s practically flipped, with only 84 Democrats and 119 Republicans.

But it’s not just political parties that get hurt. White politicians  have used tricks like gerrymandering and at-large districts to keep the number of minority elected officials well below what they should be. And, here in Pennsylvania, it’s no coincidence that the most egregiously-gerrymandered districts are in urban areas. The problem is so bad nationwide that President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder are going to lead a campaign to make redistricting more fair after the 2020 Census.

The solution is so simple that it’s almost painful. Computers can quickly, easily, and seamlessly redraw districts that are fair and compact without bias. Quite frankly, it’s outrageous that our legislators (and our courts) allow hand-drawn, cherry-picked districts to continue to exist. The only possible reason is that they want to continue to dilute and suppress poor and minority votes.

Voter registration

Another pillar of Jim Crow voter oppression was the refusal to let African Americans register to vote. By putting barrier after barrier in their way, southern Whites made it practically impossible for African Americans to register, and therefore made it impossible for them to vote altogether. And, to this day, voter registration is made as difficult as possible for exactly the same reasons.

Voter registration requires proactive steps on the part of citizens. They have to first know that they have to actively register. Then, they have to make sure they register early enough to be allowed to vote in the next election. Here in Pennsylvania, they have to know that they have to register as a Republican or Democrat in order to have a meaningful voice in primary elections. They have to understand that registering to vote doesn’t affect any other legal rights they may have in other states. And, when people move, they somehow forfeit their eligibility to vote just because they have a new address; so people who move have to know that they have to re-register.

While the days of George Wallace are over, voter oppression continues to this very day. We still have completely unnecessary and unjustified restrictions on voting that diminish and restrict the ability of the poor—particularly poor, urban minorities—to exercise the most fundamental right in our democracy.

This system is completely ridiculous. Voter registration should be automatic. There are perfectly good reasons to require citizens to vote in the district in which they live; but figuring out where a person lives isn’t rocket science. Think about all of the government agencies that know about a person’s address by the time they turn 18: schools; the DMV; the IRS, as well as state and local tax agencies; the list goes on. And the longer a person lives, the more government agencies they’ll interact with, including utility companies. There is no good reason why those agencies shouldn’t automatically register people to vote, like they do in five states already. None. It should be exceedingly rare for a person to need to fill out a new voter registration form. Voter registration drives should be a thing of the past, a discarded relic of a bygone era of overt racial oppression.

Voting on Tuesday only

If you want to make something difficult for poor people to do, here’s a hint: Make them do it on a specific day (ideally a weekday) at a specific time (ideally during work hours) in a specific place, and only give them one chance to do it. Small surprise that we still hold our elections during work hours on one specific Tuesday in November. Pennsylvania voters have one 13-hour window in which to vote, and if you can’t make it then, well, too bad for you.

This is a problem that a lot of states have actually taken significant steps to address. Just not Pennsylvania, of course. For many, that 13-hour window is plenty of time. We can vote before or after work, or we can roll into work late or duck out early and tell our boss that we had to vote. No big deal, right?

But for people who work hourly jobs, missing a shift could be the difference between paying rent or getting evicted. On top of that, missing a shift could cost them their job entirely. Single parents with children might not have the time to stand in line at the polls. Some people might be forced to be out of town unexpectedly on election day, but didn’t know about it until after the absentee ballot deadline.

The fact is, there are real costs to voting. The more difficult we make voting, the higher those costs. And the people who can least afford to bear those costs are the people who often have the most to gain or lose from the outcome of an election—poor and minorities. This amounts to a poll tax, plain and simple.

Again, the solutions are simple and already widely-implemented. Early voting is allowed in 34 states (plus DC), and vote-by-mail has been fully implemented in Oregon and Washington. And if for some reason we’re not willing to do that much? How about just making election day a national holiday and making it illegal for employers to retaliate against employees if they miss work because of voting?

The two-party system

This year’s presidential election, perhaps more than any other, highlights the failings of a two-party system. From the first primary all the way through the general election, voters in both parties were disappointed with their options, and frequently forced to make strategic choices about who to vote for rather than voting for the person they truly thought was best. For instance, in the Republican primary, the overwhelming majority of Republican voters wanted anyone but Donald Trump to be their nominee; but, because they couldn’t agree on a consensus alternative, Trump won state after state with small pluralities of the vote.

It’s easy to see why poor and minority communities aren’t thrilled with their choices. Trump’s rhetoric towards minorities has been the worst of any presidential candidate since George Wallace himself, leaving Clinton free to ignore those communities in her policies, safe in the knowledge that they practically have to vote for her if they even want a shot at our next president caring about them. And, realistically, there’s no way for anyone to build a credible third-party candidate because of the way we count votes.

Gerrymandering is the worst culprit of racial oppression since Jim Crow. It’s outrageous that our legislators allow hand-drawn, cherry-picked districts to continue to exist. The only possible reason is that they want to continue to dilute and suppress poor and minority votes.

The general issue with voting for third-party candidates and independents is, of course, the Ralph Nader problem. For those of you who don’t remember (or chose to forget), Nader infamously siphoned votes from Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election, costing Gore both Florida and the presidency. Our two parties are so entrenched that the likelihood of a viable third party emerging are effectively zero. So any vote for a third-party candidate takes a vote away from one of the “viable” major party candidates. People who vote strategically will end up voting for their second choice, which isn’t how democracy should work.

Ranked-choice voting solves the Nader problem—and thus encourages the existence of third parties—by allowing people to rank all candidates in order of preference. Although it’s slightly more complicated than our current winner-take-all system, it’s infinitely more fair. In a ranked-choice system, a candidate must win a majority of all votes in order to win the election. If, after counting all of the first-choice votes, no one has a majority, then the candidate who had the fewest first-choice votes sees their votes redistributed based on those voters’ second choices. The process continues until someone crosses that 50 percent threshold.

If we’d had ranked-choice voting in 2000, all of those Nader voters could have ranked Nader as their top choice and Gore as their second choice; once Nader was eliminated, those votes would have transferred to Gore, who as a result likely would have won the election. We’re seeing something similar happen this year, as supporters of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are slowly being drawn to either Clinton or Trump out of fear of playing the spoiler.

That’s not all

These are just a few of the ideas that could greatly expand Americans’ ability to vote. There are even more, like open primaries, lowering the voting age to 16, voting online, and creating financial incentives to vote. Implementing any one of these ideas would make our elections more fair than they currently are.

If we were to create our voting system from scratch, it’s unthinkable that we would create a system that looks like the one we have. Everyone one of these flaws would have to be somehow justified. The only justification we currently have is the old “that’s the way things have always been done” excuse. But inertia dating back to Jim Crow is quite possibly the worst justification for any of them. So yes, Mr. Trump, the election is rigged, just like every single election in American history has been rigged. It’s rigged against the poor and minorities. What’s your plan to fix it?

Photo header via Flickr

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