Although the midterms went better for the Democrats than the Republicans, they did not quite run the table. Democratic control of the House of Representatives is good news for that Party and all but guarantees that the conservative legislative phase, such as it was, of Donald Trump’s presidency is over. However, Republicans can point to the US Senate where they expanded their lead meaning that President Trump will be encounter no resistance when appointing federal judges, cabinet appointees or other positions requiring Senate confirmation. Thus, both parties can claim partial victories, but there was a clear loser-American democracy.
It seems counterintuitive, even contrary, to point to an election with record turnout and assert that the loser was democracy, but a close look suggests that is the case. This election was unusual in that both sides were poised to claim election fraud, rigged voting or something of that sort if they had lost badly. Republican efforts to suppress the votes of non-whites in several states have received ample attention, as they should. Among conservatives, claims of voter fraud on behalf of Democrats were equally rampant, although much less grounded in reality.
The doubts raised by both parties around the legitimacy of the election reflects a declining confidence in the voting process, which is the core mechanism of American democracy. For decades elections have been poorly run and generally underfunded in America, but this problem has gotten worse and been more weaponized in recent years. We now view it as almost axiomatic that voting places for low income people of color will have fewer machines and longer lines than those in affluent white communities. We similarly recognize that Democratic campaigns need to invest time and resources into legal teams to ensure that their voters are allowed to vote. This is made worse by aggressive Republican politicians and legislatures who pass laws creating barriers for non-white voters.
These barriers did not stop the Democrats from winning back control of the House, but it had an impact. It is probably not possible to quantify the impact of voter suppression on the recent midterms, but there is good reason to think that, for example, the Georgia governor’s was won by Brian Kemp in part because of voter suppression and that countless state and local races were also effected by these problems.
The major Republican victory last night was that the party increased their majority in the US Senate. The votes are still being counted in a few states, but the Republicans will end up with 52-54 seats in the upper chamber of Congress, due largely to controlling most of the Senate seats from small states like Wyoming and the Dakotas. The inequality built into the US Senate has always been a problem for American democracy, but in recent years it is has come to strongly reinforce partisan cleavages creating a permanent bias in favor of the Republican Party. This is a problem for Democrats who simply are not able to play on a level playing field, but is also a problem for America as one of our major parties is increasingly dependent on fundamentally undemocratic structures for their political survival.
As this political reality becomes clear to Americans who have seen two of the last five presidential elections won by a candidate who lost the popular vote and have grown accustomed to Senate control being determined by small state Republicans, the need to reform our democracy has also become evident. That has led to some of the most positive midterm election outcomes. In Florida, Amendment 4 passed, restoring voter rights to felons who have served their time. This is a major change that will reenfranchise over a million Floridians and make it more difficult to use the criminal justice system as a political tool. Similarly, Maryland, Nevada and Michigan passed ballot initiatives that may lead to same day voter registration. That is particularly important in Nevada and Michigan, two states where both major parties are competitive. These are all victories for democracy.
During the next two years, these democracy issues are not going to go away. They will continue to undermine confidence in our political system, particularly as Donald Trump moves towards an electoral college strategy where has almost no chance of winning the popular vote. Proponents of greater democracy will call for more reforms, perhaps even radical proposals that would treat all American voters equally. Opponents will hide behind the Constitution, using that powerful document as a way to stifle debate about democracy in America. They will probably continue to win that debate in the short run, but by doing that they will rally behind an inflexibility that will continue to rend apart a society where the structures are failing and the demand for democracy is growing.