Why the United States is not a true democracyBreaking News
tags: democracy, socialism, American government
Pennsylvania DSA member Van Gosse is a professor of history at Franklin and Marshall College.
Ask most people around the world what “democracy” means and they’ll tell you: equal voting rights for all citizens, fair elections, and majority rule. None of those fully apply in the United States today, nor have they ever. Here is one key reason why the United States is not a true democracy: The right to vote is constitutionally limited and has always been challenged.
Americans believe they have a right to vote for all elected officials who represent them, including the president. But nowhere does the Constitution guarantee that as an absolute right. Throughout our history, that ambiguity has made it easy for politicians and parties to disenfranchise people they do not want to vote. The Constitution requires the states to have a republican form of government, but that clause has never been understood to mandate universal suffrage. The framers left voting and citizenship almost entirely up to the individual states, notably in Article One, Section Four, which specified that “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof” (although it stipulated that “the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations”). From 1789 to 2019, the legislative and judicial branches have been cautious about interfering in what is presumed to be the prerogative of the individual states.
Since the Civil War, a series of constitutional amendments, acts of Congress, and Supreme Court decisions have extended the right to vote, but always through negative prohibitions on what a state or locality may do. The lack of affirmative guarantees of the right to vote has repeatedly created space for legal disenfranchisement. The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) barred voter disenfranchisement on the basis of race or color, just as the Nineteenth banned the use of gender (1920), and the Twenty-Sixth (1972) age (for anyone eighteen or older). The Twenty-Fourth Amendment (1965) outlawed requiring payment of a tax as a prerequisite for voting in federal (but not state or local) elections. Beginning with the 1962 Baker v. Carr decision, the Supreme Court required “one person/one vote” proportionality in allocating congressional, state, and local legislative districts. Finally, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965 gave the federal government the authority to intervene when state or municipal governments impeded voter registration or limited access to the polls.
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