In political reform, as in life generally, too much of a good thing can be bad. What is necessary for good government can be problematic when it is taken to excess. A true democracy requires meaningful opportunities to contest for political power. But how much contestation is necessary for a well-functioning modern democracy? American political reformers generally assume that the more contestation the better, but recent experience suggests otherwise.
Democratic accountability requires that voters must be able to hold office-holders responsible for their actions by rewarding them with reelection or voting them out of office when they fail. Over the years, this has fueled reform debates over whether incumbency advantages, partisan gerrymandering, lobbying, and campaign practices have undermined competition and responsiveness.
These are legitimate concerns but contestation also has its drawbacks. In contemporary American politics, a prolonged period of highly polarized competition between the Democrats and Republicans for control of the Federal and state governments has eroded our commitment to fair play in politics. This problem is playing out prominently in recent controversies over voting procedures controversies and efforts to limit the power of incoming governments.
It is no secret that U.S. voting procedures have been manipulated throughout U.S. history for partisan advantage. Literacy tests and poll taxes were used in the Jim Crow era to exclude blacks and poor whites in the South. This perpetuated southern, white, Democratic Party dominance until civil rights legislation and judicial interpretation made these practices illegal.
Contemporary forms of election rule manipulation are subtler, but just as before, political interests define which side of the ballot disputes a political party finds itself on. Republicans, citing concerns about in-person voter fraud, have taken steps to impose stricter voter identification requirements and other steps to make it more onerous to register and vote. Democrats, when they can, have made it easier to vote in order to expand the electorate. Ballot security and broader political participation are legitimate goals. In both cases, however, the “principled” positions Republicans and Democrats take also coincide with their partisan interests.
The most recent example of this is the controversy over the “harvesting” of absentee ballots in the 2018 midterm election. California is one of 28 states plus DC that allows no excuse absentee voting. But California has gone the extra mile in recent years to ensure that these votes are not wasted by extending the period that absentee ballots can arrive and be counted, allowing eight days to reconcile any signature disparities and permitting third parties to collect and deliver absentee ballots for the voters. Contrast that with 19 other states that require a valid excuse (i.e. not mere convenience) to apply for an absentee ballot, or states like Florida and Mississippi that permit no excuse absentee voting but have stricter deadlines for filing or that require notarized ballots.
California adopted its permissive measures because the state discovered that younger, first time, and disadvantaged voters were more prone to make mistakes and miss deadlines, and wanted to lessen the number of absentee votes they would have to be discarded. It was widely expected that this would help the Democrats who controlled the Governor and houses of the state legislature.
At one level, California Democrats have a principled commitment to fuller participation, but to be honest, their efforts to ease the burdens associated with absentee ballot voting are conveniently consistent with the majority party’s political incentives. The Republican coalition usually consists of older, better-educated voters who were more able to navigate the absentee voting process successfully on their own. Democrats, on the other hand, have long known that absentee ballot campaigns for their voters required more GOTV follow-up in order to be successful. Ironically, because President Trump appeals to many less well-educated first time or sporadic voters, Republican incentives in North Carolina were apparently similar in 2018 to Democrats in California. Hence, the Republican candidate for North Carolina’s tightly contested 9th CD allegedly authorized an illegal absentee vote harvesting effort on his behalf in 2018.
Whatever the merits of allowing extensive absentee balloting (and I have long had my doubts), the point is that closely contested races exacerbate the win at all costs mentality. Candidates and their operatives will look for any tactical edge they can get, leading to more illegal, unethical or unwise attempts to bend the rules for political gain. If fair play means setting rules in advance on the basis of the common good and observing them throughout the election, that is definitely not the state of play in America at the moment.
The pressures of close contestation undermined fair play in Wisconsin in a different way. There the Republican state legislature decided to curb the powers of the incoming Democratic Governor and Attorney General to prevent them from withdrawing from Republican litigation against the ACA or changing the work or drug testing requirements for public assistance programs. While this has been widely condemned as an outrageous abridgement of electoral accountability, it is not really that much of a departure from the many past efforts by politicians at all levels of government to lock in their policy achievements as they rotate out of power.
Presidents routinely use executive actions in their lame duck year to advance policy agendas that they could not get through the Congress, recognizing that it is harder to dismantle an existing program than to block a proposed one. In direct democracy states, proponents regularly lock budgetary commitments and policies into the state constitution by popular initiatives to prevent cuts or reversals in policy direction. Democrats have used the courts to block refugee and immigration policies they oppose, and Republicans followed the same path to obstruct the implementation of the ACA.
My point is not to condone this, or to diminish the effect that all of this has on accountability, but only to point out that these actions are the consequences of expected shifts in political control. The more power shifts, the more we should expect activity of this sort. Periods of close contestation will produce more policy instability. This generates more uncertainty for the citizens, interest groups and businesses that have to cope with these reversals. It is the downside of a highly competitive party system.
So I return to my initial point that too much of a good thing can be bad. Races in competitive seats are more expensive. Policies in contested eras are more uncertain. The incentive to violate norms of fair play by changing rules to gain tactical advantage or to limit the ability of the other side to fully exercise their electoral mandate are inevitably stronger when political control is closely contested.
Contestation is a core principle of democracy, but high levels of contestation can weaken the commitment to other democratic principles like fair play. In matters of political reform, more of one democratic norm can lead to less of others.