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Opinion: America, we have a problem

Scholars warn that American democracy is ‘fundamentally at stake.’ They’re right

One of the great American fallacies is that our democracy is invincible. On that, our confidence may be weaning into illusioned conceit. A group of over 100 political scientists recently released a timely wake-up call, aptly titled “Statement of Concern.”

“Our democracy is fundamentally at stake,” they write. “History will judge what we do at this moment.”

Their reasoning is this: The heart of any effective democracy are free and fair elections. And since states — from Arizona to Texas to Florida — are proposing “radical changes” to their electoral processes, that centerpiece of democracy is flailing. Should fair elections go, democracy will go with them.

2020 was just a preview, they write. “In future elections, these laws politicizing the administration and certification of elections could enable some state legislatures or partisan election officials to do what they failed to do in 2020: reverse the outcome of a free and fair election.”

All Americans — on any side of the political spectrum — should see the danger in setting such a precedent. Former President Donald Trump and his legal team failed to overturn the 2020 election, and yet a majority of Republicans still believe he won, despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud sufficient to change the result.

But what if the election was closer? What if a more competent legal team presented more compelling evidence? What if, in every election henceforth, the loser refuses to concede, their followers follow suit and the election is decided by the courts, not the people?

We already have an answer. Democracy is fragile, and it doesn’t take long to fall. In the early 1970s, Chile was one of the strongest democracies in the Western Hemisphere. Within a few years, a military regime led by Augusto Pinochet Ugarte took over and rewrote their Constitution. A decade later, Venezuela — also a democracy — was the wealthiest country in Latin America. But Hugo Chavez took control by way of a fair election — then dramatically restructured the government to favor him and his political allies.

“The fear of other people attaining power was higher than the fear of undermining democracy (in those countries),” Laura Gamboa, a political scientist at the University of Utah, told me. “It was polarization. It was the willingness to sacrifice the basic rules of democracy, just because they wanted to advance a particular policy agenda.”

Gamboa was one of the scholars who signed the “Statement of Concern.” She is an expert on Latin American politics, especially regime changes and the erosion of democracy in Chile and Venezuela. And what she sees in the U.S. is eerily reminiscent of those countries — the distrust in institutions, the polarization, the violence (like on Jan. 6). Hyperpolarization is the biggest threat to American democracy today, she says.

If history doesn’t repeat itself, it sure seems to maintain the status quo. The possible outcomes of abandoning our commitment to fairness and access in elections are already distinguishable. “Democracies have collapsed in the most stable places,” Gamboa said. “Playing with elections is playing with fire. That’s how democracies die.”

That’s not to say all electoral reforms are inherently bad. A misleading CNN headline last month, echoing a common narrative, warned that 47 states have introduced bills “that would make it harder to vote.” Utah was listed among them, although the lone Utah voting reform bill last legislative session, HB12, did nothing more than remove dead voters from the election registry.

But other states, like Florida and Texas, are cutting down on mail-in voting, empowering partisan poll watchers and reducing ballot drop box hours. Whether these reforms make for a more secure election is up for debate; whether they make voting more difficult is certain. And with no widespread voter fraud to justify their efforts — the state of Texas has only one voter fraud case open among 11 million ballots from November’s election — the changes are being made in poor faith.

Pulling our democracy off the ledge starts with safeguarding elections. “When democracy breaks down, it typically takes many years, often decades, to reverse the downward spiral,” the scholars wrote in their statement. “The most effective remedy for these anti-democratic laws at the state level is federal action(.)”

In offering solutions, they deem the John Lewis Voting Rights Act “essential” and suspending the filibuster “necessary” — both measures that make Republicans bristle. But conservatives can share their concern without necessarily embracing their proposals. Even if the John Lewis Act is “unjustified and unneeded,” as some conservatives argued prior to last year’s election, the need for reform is clear. President Joe Biden won a fair election, and yet large swaths of the country refuse to accept that. A dangerous precedent, indeed.

Gamboa notes that other reforms are needed on the part of citizens, too — we need fewer labels and more democrats (with a small “d”). Safeguarding democracy is not a partisan issue. We need more people who can move beyond party affiliations and do what’s best for the country. We may disagree on the way to achieve things, she says, but finding common ground does not mean agreeing on everything.

“People are complex individuals,” she continued. “And the minute we start seeing people as more than the political party they affiliate with, the more likely we are to start figuring this out.”

The good news is that America is far from dead. The bad news is that her elections are as good a measure we have for her health, and we’re losing faith in them fast.

In all her might, America is not invincible. Protecting her is not a partisan issue.

Samuel Benson is a staff opinion writer for the Deseret News.

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