Top Political Scientists Release Dire Warning: Our Entire Democracy Is at Risk

June 3, 2021 | 7:32 pm
Red light on emergency vehicle outside the US CapitolUS Department of Homeland Security/Wikimedia
Michael Latner
Senior Voting Rights Fellow

On June 1, the New America Foundation published a widely-circulated Statement of Concern from some of the world’s most accomplished experts in the study of democracy. I am proud to be a signatory. 

The statement condemns statutory changes that are being made in several state legislatures, changes which we believe make it more likely that these states will attempt to reverse the outcome of free and fair elections in the future.

I want to explain my specific reasons for supporting such a strong condemnation of these state actions and the call for federal action. I believe it is important to highlight the need for people to organize and pressure Congress to adopt safety precautions before it is too late.

First, I support the statement because it reflects the concern of colleagues who have witnessed and analyzed the causes of democratic breakdown across the world. (My own graduate training was in comparative politics, but I’ve worked almost exclusively on institutions in the United States for the last several years, studying electoral integrity, partisan gerrymandering, and public policy.)

The statement signatories include comparativists like Pippa Norris, founding director of the Electoral Integrity Project, a global research project dedicated to the study of why elections fail; and Michael Coppedge, a principal investigator at the V-Dem or “Varieties of Democracy” research institute, one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive databases of global political institutions. These and many other signatories bring a comparative political science perspective through which they are observing the decline in US democracy.

Second, we see these patterns elsewhere. Specifically, the erosion of democracy we are witnessing in the US is also being observed in other autocratizing countries: the world’s largest democracy, India, was recently downgraded to an electoral autocracy, due largely to partisan co-optation of election management. Similarly, several of our state legislatures, including Georgia, Arizona, and Texas are expanding the authority of partisan actors in determining election outcomes.

In Hungary, not only does the ruling Fidesz Party maintain control through the implementation of plurality, “winner-take-all” election districts (which have an effect similar to partisan gerrymandering in the US), they also imposed a filibuster-like supermajority requirement to change future election laws! It is possible that some autocrats are strengthening their grip using tactics adapted from US institutions, rather than the US serving as an example of democratic reform.

Third, the statement provides a clear path forward: federal action to protect equal access of all citizens to the ballot and to guarantee free and fair elections. From the statement:

“True electoral integrity demands a comprehensive set of national standards that ensure the sanctity and independence of election administration, guarantee that all voters can freely exercise their right to vote, prevent partisan gerrymandering from giving dominant parties in the states an unfair advantage in the process of drawing congressional districts, and regulate ethics and money in politics.”

Passage of these protective measures is going to require 1) temporary suspension of the filibuster for legislation addressing voting rights, and 2) a public discourse to make sure that the language of the For the People Act gets it right.

We all have a huge stake in this game—the erosion of democracy is linked to higher rates of violence, corruption, and economic disruption, among other dire consequences—so it is crucial that people be organized and vocal about supporting these necessary reforms. You can take action now and demand that the Senate acts to protect voting rights and the integrity of our elections.

About the author

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Michael Latner is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. His research focuses on political representation and electoral systems, including redistricting and gerrymandering in the US, and the impact of electoral administrative law on political participation.