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US Election 2020: American Democracy on the Ballot Paper

As the US electorate heads to the polls to vote for the next President, senators and representatives, Mike Buckley explores why a victory for Joe Biden may not on its own guarantee a respite from the effects of four years of Republican Government under Trump

US President Donald Trump. Photo: Gripas Yuri/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

US ELECTION 2020American Democracy ison the Ballot Paper

As the US electorate heads to the polls to vote for the next President, senators and representatives, Mike Buckley explores why a victory for Joe Biden may not on its own guarantee a respite from the effects of four years of Republican Government under Trump

Barack Obama once said that American democracy could survive one term of a Donald Trump presidency, but not two. In today’s election, the future of democracy itself is being tested at the ballot box.

In his August speech at the Democratic Party Convention, Obama accused Trump of failing to “discover reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care” and said “that’s what’s at stake right now – our democracy”. 

American democracy has been under attack for decades. Trump’s election may have been the gravest test it has faced but, even before his election, Republicans were gerrymandering at local level, redrawing the electoral map to favour their own candidates at the expense of the Democrats.

US political maps are redrawn every 10 years after the census. Since 2010, the Republicans have asserted their political dominance by redrawing voting districts to favour their own candidates – meaning that in 16 key states they have been able to retain control of state legislatures even in years when Democratic candidates won more votes. In three states in particular – Texas, Wisconsin and North Carolina – local races will determine not just the next decade of the politics of these states, but also the electoral college, and hence presidential results, into the 2030s. If the Democrats lose these races this time, further Republican-led boundary changes would make it even harder for them to win control next time around. 

Trump has also not been idle on every issue. By appointing a generation of young, conservative federal judges – lifetime appointees, able to block laws coming from a Democratic Congress – he has ensured his legacy. They have already begun to reshape US law in a more conservative direction on issues as wide-ranging as gun control, voting rights, environmental protections, abortion and immigration. It is this success which keeps Trump’s conservative base onside, regardless of his failure in managing the Coronavirus crisis. 

To turn the tide, Democrats will need to win across the nation and at every level in an electoral system that often favours their opponents. 

Even winning the presidency is not as easy as winning the popular vote. The Democrats have won the most votes in seven of the last eight elections, but won the presidency only four of those times. Even with a popular vote lead of 5%, Biden has only an 89% chance of success. That might sound unassailable, but Hillary Clinton had similar numbers in 2016, winning the popular vote by three points but losing the electoral college to Trump resoundingly.

According to the latest polls, Biden has a wide national lead, but in the battleground states – notably Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida and Wisconsin – his lead is narrower; healthy if not unassailable.

More Republican Populism on the Way?

To enact real change, the Democrats also need to gain control of Congress in the election. They are likely to retain control of the House of Representatives, but winning the Senate will be a great deal harder.

Populous states such as New York and California have the same number of senators – and power – as low population rural states like Iowa and Wisconsin, giving the Republicans an in-built advantage. 

The Senate is currently split 53-47 between Republicans and Democrats, with 35 seats up for election, 23 currently Republican and 12 Democrat. Democrats need to win four seats for a majority, (three if Biden wins the White House). Polls show that nine Republican-held seats are leaning Democrat – Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Montana, North Carolina and South Carolina. 

Even if election night is a success for the Democrats – from the presidency all the way to state level – US democracy may still not be safe. As was seen in 2016, a Democrat win this time could easily become a Republican win in 2024.

Far from shifting back towards the centre-ground, many believe that the Republicans will go further down the path of populist authoritarianism and could have a good chance of winning power again with a leader just as populist as Trump, but more competent and articulate. 

If they win, to safeguard democracy, Biden and the Democrats will have to use their power in the next two years before mid-term elections in which they could lose control of Congress.

Biden could act to remove corporate money from elections, to rebalance the US Senate and tackle the conservative stranglehold over the courts. Some suggest giving Puerto Rico and Washington DC two senators apiece to make Democratic control more achievable and to enfranchise populations who currently have no Senate representatives. He could end redistricting or subject it to greater scrutiny or independent oversight. 

But systemic change on its own might not be enough. The Democrats will also need to ensure that every American has the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act was neutered in 2013 by the conservative majority of the Supreme Court, in a ruling which effectively ended the involvement of the US Government in preventing voter suppression by mainly southern states. Following the case, Republican-controlled states across the country reimposed barriers to voting directed largely at African American and other minority communities.

America’s power may be waning and the 21st Century may belong to China, but for now and for the foreseeable future, with urgent action needed on climate change and pressing global economy, security and human rights concerns, the world still needs an America able and willing to play its part.

The results tonight matter and, should Biden win, so will what he and his party do with power.

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