It’s sad, but true. Think of all that it took to challenge and overthrow the Divine Right of Kings and to dismantle the exclusive power and privileges claimed for ages by aristocracies in one land after another. It required centuries before the “people” finally asserted themselves, insisted that they were the ultimate authority and that they would exert their power by voting at popular elections. As suffrage expanded in the United States (for example, most states initially imposed property requirements for voting), more and more people gained access to the polls, and through regularly scheduled elections the opportunity to select candidates to represent them. Over time, in one nation after another, elections rather than inherited privilege, military coups and dictatorial rulers became the legitimate means of transferring governing power from one group to another. Eventually, unless elections were conducted, no one could claim they were legally authorized to hold public office.
Alas, the election process itself has been subverted again and again. Those holding power have devised numerous ways to undermine the process, to tilt the balance in their favor. Elections continue but the system will be manipulated to ensure a predetermined outcome. Rival campaigns will be permitted, but the outcome will never be in doubt. In Iran, for example, before candidates qualify for the ballot they must be vetted by religious authorities. Almost always, scores are denied the opportunity to run. In other places, opposition campaigns have been disrupted, their leaders jailed and supporters denied, often forcibly, entry to the polls. Then there are elections that are postponed, under some pretext, when candidates representing opposition forces seem poised to win.
Fraudulent vote counts are frequent. When the number of votes cast in a district exceeds the total of registered voters, ballot stuffing is the likely explanation. On the other hand, when opposition votes “disappear” and are not counted, we can assume that ballot boxes have been removed and destroyed. Of course, people can vote any way they please, but it is the government that presents the “official” results. Claiming victory for themselves and defeat for the opposition often settles the matter. That’s especially the case when no independent authority or outside poll watchers are present to challenge the results. Many of the current rulers in the former Soviet Republics, now independent nations, seem to proceed in this matter, claiming eye-raising majorities for themselves.
The United States, the birthplace of broad suffrage rights, has itself fallen victim to election charades. Complex and excessively legalistic registration laws (which result in millions upon millions of ineligible unregistered voters), restrictive voter ID regulations, the broad exclusion of former prison inmates and an overwhelming majority of gerrymandered districts dominated by one party have kept voting participation at disappointingly low levels. While elections determine our leaders, low turnouts are all too common. Consequently, most of those elected to office are rarely the choice of the majority of potential voters in each district.
Maybe it was too good to be true, only a matter of time before popular rule would be subverted, rendered ineffective. High turnout elections, fairly conducted, are the essential fuel of participatory democracy. We’d better act now to safeguard this precious process.