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OP-ED: The US elections will not be simple

  • Published at 08:52 pm June 22nd, 2020
US election 2020

Some key issues that may shape the outcome of the November elections

This is my second article on the November election in the United States. There remain many uncertainties in how this election is going to take place and about the complex issues around it.  In this article, I examine some of the key issues that shape the outcome of this election.

Issues in democratic elections

There are three major issues in the USA’s November election covered here. Two of these are not particular to this election, and the third, mail voting, has become more important due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Financing the election

The rules and laws that determine the financing of federal elections are complicated and are changing with the outcome of court cases. The simplest way to think about this financing is to divide the actors between donors and recipients.  

Donors include individuals, corporations, and labour unions. These can give directly or they can form associations that can support candidates or issues; one such organization can give to other organizations.  

The recipients are specific individuals running in the elections (who form candidate committees to accept funds), political parties at different organizational levels, and other organizations that will act on their own during the election in such matters as advertising for candidates or issues.  

There are Political Action Committees (PACs) that take funds from donors and pass them on to recipients. The size of individual and organization contributions directly to the candidate for use in the election are limited by law.  

Individuals can give directly or may contribute to a PAC. The PAC has a limited amount that it can give directly to the candidate but it can expend what it wants on activities such as advertising so long as this is not done in coordination with the candidate’s election committee.

Super-PACs can take any amount of money from contributors and spend it in support of candidates or issues so long as there is no coordination with the candidate’s election committee.  The Super-PAC cannot contribute directly to the candidate or even discuss the election with the candidate or his team.

The argument of the courts is that under the first amendment, providing freedom of speech, the corporation, or the labour union, or the rich man can say what he wants so long as it is independent of the candidate’s campaign.  

The impact of the laws and the court rulings is to assist the party that is closest to the interests of corporations and wealthy individuals. Currently, that is the Republicans, at least at the presidential level. For members of Congress, the impact is less, as individual contributions can easily swamp that of the corporation and the labor union.    

Voting rights

Can a person vote? The rules are set by each state, except for the Federal rule that anyone 18 years and above can vote. In effect, if you have lived in a state for some period (usually one month) then you can register as a voter. 

To do so one needs some kind of approved ID (passport, driver’s license, state-issued ID card, utility bills). This is not difficult for middle-class people, but for the poor, it can be expensive and time-consuming.  

Once registered, there may be an additional one month before one can vote, it differs from one state to another. Unlike Bangladesh, where the government puts you on the voter list whether you like it or not, in the US, it takes an action by the individual to get registered, ie to get on the voter list.  

The Republicans have systematically tried to make it difficult for persons to register. The Republican argument is that poor people are more likely to vote Democratic, so if one makes it difficult for the poor, it will reduce the Democratic vote. Whether this is true is uncertain. Furthermore, some states have rules that if you are a convicted felon you cannot vote even if you have served your prison sentence. 

To illustrate the eagerness of Republicans to suppress voting rights: In Florida, the law that took the vote away from felons was repealed in a state referendum. The Republican-controlled state legislature in Florida, then passed a law that an ex-felon could only vote if he had paid all his dues to the state. That would take the vote away from more than half of the ex-felons. 

A judge has  just ruled that such a condition was unconstitutional (it is, the judge argued, equivalent to a poll tax, a tax that must be paid to vote that is unconstitutional).

In the period before the November election, the Republican party will continue their efforts to make registration difficult with an explicit objective to reduce the number of poor people who are voting.

Use of mail ballots

One issue that the Republican party fears is the widespread use of mail ballots. This is a hot issue as President Trump is outspoken against the more widespread use of mail ballots.

Mail ballots arise when a voter applies to the authorities running the election for a ballot that can be completed at home and then sent by post or delivered to the voting authorities. Different states have different rules on the conditions controlling who can get a ballot to be mailed in. 

In some states, anyone can obtain a ballot by asking; in other states there has to be an acceptable reason why you can have one. The advantage of the mail ballot is that it allows persons to vote who may not otherwise find it possible.  

For many years, states have allowed absentee ballots for persons who were absent from the state; persons who had medical problems in getting to the polls were also allowed to have a ballot mailed to them. This applies to old persons, persons with disabilities, persons with transport difficulties, persons who are travelling out of town on election day, students who may be away at university, and persons serving in the military who are far away from home, etc.  

These categories may amount to quite a few voters. For many of these groups, it has long been possible to obtain a ballot to mail to the authorities. But more and more, many states want to allow much broader use of the mail ballot; there are a handful of states that all voting can be done by mailed ballot.

American political scientists believe that minorities tend to favour the use of the mail ballot, often finding it difficult to reach polling centres within the appointed hours. The Republicans receive less support from minorities and thus, are keen to make it as difficult as possible for them to vote -- this includes trying to limit the use of mail ballots.  

Many states are now sending an application for a mailed-in ballot to everyone on the voter list.  This makes it much simpler for the voter to use the mailed ballot: Complete the application, receive the ballot, complete it, and send it in. 

Some Republicans like Trump claim that the use of mailed ballots will encourage fraud. There is no evidence for this claim. But he realizes correctly that a shift to greater use of mailed ballots will favour the Democrats (not all political scientists agree with this). The one case of an organized fraud using mailed in ballots was conducted by a Republican campaign official.  

These three issues, financing of elections, establishing voter rights, and the use of mail ballots all indicate how difficult is the practice of democracy in a modern state. 

Forrest Cookson is an economist who has served as the first president of AmCham and has been a consultant for the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.

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