Midterm elections as democracy’s renewal

Voter sentiments ahead of the U.S. vote in November reflect a firm conviction in honest and open self-government.

Georgia Democratic candidate for governor Stacey Abrams speaks in July at a rally about voters casting in-person ballots the first week of early voting as she tries to navigate the state’s new election laws.

The midterm elections next month in the United States – in which voters will elect new officials at the local, state, and federal level, but not a new president – come at a time of uncertainty for democracy worldwide. Yet two trends in the U.S. challenge a common refrain that America’s centurieslong experiment in self-government is in trouble.

One trend is a string of consistent court rulings to safeguard elections and voting rights from false claims and unfair restrictions. The other is rising civic engagement, measured by political activism and high voter registration numbers. Together, they show that rule of law and the public’s desire for accountable government are holding firm against disinformation and cynicism.

“An expanding electorate, millions of citizens newly awake to the transformative power of the vote, and more determined than ever to be part of the democratic process and to be equitably represented in government – that’s what gives me hope,” Harvard University political science professor Claudine Gay told The Harvard Gazette.

There are, of course, novel concerns about American democracy two years after the 2020 presidential election and its turbulent aftermath.

A third of Americans say election fraud determined President Joe Biden’s victory, according to a Monmouth University poll in June. A survey by the Brookings Institution last week found that 345 candidates for local, state, and federal office support false claims that the 2020 presidential election was flawed.

Yet more than half of voters worry more about making sure eligible voters have access to voting than about efforts to prevent voting fraud, according to a NPR/Marist poll in June. Since 2020, many states have enacted new laws that some interest groups say restrict voter access while others say prevent voting misconduct. One common restriction, for example, is a requirement for government-issued photo identification in order to vote. The controversy over this restriction is high even if nearly 8 in 10 Americans support it.

Meanwhile, in yet another measure of voter sentiments, 84% say the integrity of the elections is top priority, according to a Rasmussen poll last week. ”Preventing cheating in elections is a priority for voters,” the polling firm concluded. Some states are wrestling with bipartisan support for measures that meet these expectations.

Courts are trying to play a crucial role sorting out these issues and clashing priorities – maintaining their role in preserving the design of democracy. On Sept. 30, for example, a federal judge upheld voting laws in Georgia against allegations that they unfairly excluded certain types of people from casting ballots. The ruling effectively shut down claims by Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor, that she was denied victory when she sought the office four years earlier. A month earlier, a federal judge overturned a restrictive provision in Wisconsin that would have prevented disabled voters from casting ballots without assistance.

For many voters, worries about the electoral process are not their only concern. Issues such as rising crime, inflation, illegal border crossings, and Supreme Court rulings on personal rights are driving people to vote. A Morning Consult/Politico poll found that 59% of Democrats and 58% of Republicans are “extremely” or “very” enthusiastic about voting. That’s up 44% and 46% respectively from two years ago.

Younger voters in particular show what’s behind that enthusiasm. Recent polls by two universities, Tufts and Harvard, found voters in their 20s are determined to exercise their power. “In the past two election cycles, America’s youngest voters have proven themselves to be a formidable voting bloc with a deep commitment to civic engagement,” said Mark Gearan, director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics, on the institute’s website. They show “a pragmatic idealism as they consider the state of our democracy and the concerning challenges they face in their lives.”

In the past, midterm elections were mainly seen as a report card on the current president. This year’s might be more – an affirmation that, despite democracy’s troubles, self-government can remain an exercise in honesty and hope.

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