A Republic At Risk
Hardly a week goes by when some newspaper or television network doesn’t feature where the U.S. ranks among the nations participating in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). This test, administered to 15-year olds every three years, serves as a benchmark for “how we’re doing” in terms of education outcomes relative to our international competitors.
Because the results get so much attention, millions of Americans are aware that our students' average scores rank relatively low on all three tests (though, when you account for error margins, U.S. scores are actually roughly average). Such awareness has stirred up remarkable urgency to improve our education system – we are told this is a “Sputnik moment," and that the very future of our nation’s economy is at risk.
Yet, for all the attention we pay to our rankings on standardized tests, how many Americans are aware that, in terms of voter turnout (voters as a proportion of voting-age population) between 1945 and 2001, the U.S. ranked 138th out of the world’s 169 democracies? To whatever degree electoral participation is an indicator of the health of a republic, ours is a sick one indeed. And it’s about to get even sicker.
This year, 17 states have enacted legislation making it harder to register and vote. Many of these laws pertain to identification requirements – put simply, those who do not have government-issued ID cannot register or vote.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with considering some sort of voter identification program, if it's done correctly – with gradual phase-in and extensive outreach. But the manner in which these new laws are being implemented is transparently political and undemocratic.
It will, as discussed before, effectively disenfranchise many millions of Americans, and it’s no accident that the same sub-groups who are least likely to have ID – less educated, younger and poorer Americans – are also the most likely to vote for Democrats.
It’s nothing short of a national shame for the U.S., with such low turnout, to actually take steps to make it harder to vote.
Making things even worse, the Citizens United Supreme Court decision permits unlimited, anonymous spending on election-related communications (e.g., advertisements). It is difficult to predict how this ruling will play out - funding does not guarantee victory - but it's safe to say that we are about to see (and have already seen) a further explosion in the influence of money in our money-saturated political system.
What do elections really mean when barely half of eligible voters actually show up (even fewer in midterms), and anonymous donors have unlimited capacity to try and influence the outcomes? Do the people who occupy elected offices really reflect or represent the will of the people?
Put simply, the primary democratic mechanism of our republic is failing, and may very well be getting worse. And that too, like our students’ scores on standardized tests, is a national crisis.
- Matt Di Carlo