Most races here are majoritarian. The person with the most votes wins the race. Typically, that person does not even need a majority of votes (50% +1). Rather, they need only a plurality or the most votes of any candidates. In a busy mayoral election, this might lead to winning with only say 30% of the vote if all the other candidates receive <30% each. Yet of course none of this matter when there is no competition. It is far less representative when positions go unopposed entirely. While state-wide figures are not available, a newspaper in rural Illinois found that in an 8 county region nearly 75% of the races have only candidate.
Yet this casual acceptance of a voting system that has large limitation is nothing new for Americans. The president has on several occasions lost the popular vote while winning the electoral college and thus the White House. The last time was only 13 years ago. Congressional districts are gerrymandered in many states by partisan legislatures and governors. The influx (if not influence) of private, often anonymous special interests has shaken the election process into a non-stop fundraising free-for-all. And despite HAVA, voting access remains uneven with minority voters twice as likely to stand in long lines to vote.
Yet, there is still reason to be optimistic. One reason is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Elections in some localities and sometimes even whole states were placed under federal oversight. Elections boards from Alabama to Yuba County (CA) must get a federal court or the Justice Department approval for all voting process adjustments. All of these localities have something – a history of voting discrimination. At the Supreme Court, the case Shelby County v. Holder, may well make it easier for localities to “bail out” of Section 5. It is unlikely that the high court would entirely throw this piece of fairness in an increasingly unfair political system.
In 1975, Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act was added, and it is also why counties are required to have voting materials in other languages and judges who speak them. While citizenship testing requires some knowledge English, it is fairly minimal. As a result, we cannot assume that our fellow Americans can completely know how to vote without translation. In fact, the 2000 Census found that around 8 million US citizens knew little or no English. In Schaumburg, this means that ballots are in English, Spanish, and Hindi. This definitely increases access to recent immigrants. A recent article by Daniel Hopkins of Georgetown found that in the Latino community, language access increased voting participation. In an election like our upcoming one, this is exceptionally important as turnout can be as low as 10% of registered voters!
So while no doubt challenges to American democracy regarding competitiveness, inclusiveness, and access remain, we can at least be assured that federal laws have tried to make this country fairer and freer. Oh and we can vote too. After all, many very important elections and referenda regarding our schools and neighborhoods will be decided tomorrow. For more information on this election, check out Cook County Elections or your local county election office.