Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Lesson from the Arizona Primary

The word "democracy" is a composite of two Greek words--"demos", the people and "kratein", to rule. Democracy is the rule of the people. That is what we keep saying, and that is what democracy theorists keep telling us. But the recent primaries in Arizona demonstrate beyond the shadow of a doubt that our democracy does not consist of the rule of the people.
In the recent Arizona primaries, many voters, especially in neighborhoods where the majority of people were poor and/or persons of color, had to wait in line for many hours in order to be able to exercise their right to vote. The Republican legislature and state government cut back sharply on the amount of money available for opening polling places. The number of polling places was reduced. Hence the long waits.
No doubt the shortage of polling places prevented a number of citizens from voting as they had planned. Parents needed to pick up their kids in school. Workers needed to be at work and could not stand in line for hours. Parents needed to be home to cook dinner for their children. They needed to be elsewhere to take care of aging parents. They had other obligations and commitments. There was not enough time for standing in line for hours in order to be able to vote.
The decisions of the state government excluded significant numbers of citizens from being part of "the people." They were prevented from exercising their citizenship rights; they were effectively prevented from acting as citizens.
In this situation the people did not rule because the government decided who was going to be a citizen. It was up to the government to allow some people to be active citizens and to prevent others from doing so.
When the government decides who is a member of "the people," the people no longer rule. On the contrary the government has the power to determine the membership of the people. Our Constitution begins with the words "We the People . . . “ But in Arizona you need government permission to be a part of that people.
Nor is the regulation of polling places the only technique by which the government decides who may vote and who may not. Many states have passed laws that make it much more difficult to vote. In some states you need to have a birth certificate in order to register as a voter. Once again the people, people of color, people whose lives are difficult and often chaotic, are likely to be excluded because they don't have the needed pieces of paper. Other states require photo IDs for anyone to go and vote. Photo IDs are hard to come by, especially for people living in the country, who have transportation challenges, little money and find it difficult to procure these identity cards with their picture on it.
“Gerrymandering” is a venerable American expression referring to drawing the lines of electoral district in artificial ways in order to deprive some populations of any chance of having an influence in elections. Drawing districts with smaller pockets of African-American voters, assures their failure to ever elect an African-American candidate. By distributing African-American voters over a number of different districts, their votes are made ineffective unless they vote for the dominant white candidate. By drawing electoral districts so as to effectively disenfranchise certain groups, the government, specifically state legislatures, deprives certain groups of effective voting rights. Gerrymandering steals the civil rights of targeted groups.
Our government effectively limits who might have a chance at being part of the people that rules. Eliminating significant groups from the electorate it determines what kind of influence voters have on government. The political interests and goals of upper-middle class whites are different from those of a more mixed electorate. What people will want and what they will strive for is seriously shaped by filtering the membership of the citizenry allowed to vote. The people do not rule. The government determines in significant ways what voters will demand.
They then insult our intelligence by telling us that we live in a democracy where the people rule. Of course, they had their fingers crossed behind their back when they say so.