Fixing what’s broken

US needs electoral reform. And a presidency that can bridge the current domestic political divide

The chaotic last act in the US elections, that might play out for a while, throws light on the twin tragedies of American politics. One is the deepening polarisation that threatens to turn the US into a dysfunctional polity. An archaic voting process has made matters worse. There was a widespread expectation, based on opinion polls, that the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, Joe Biden, will inflict a crushing defeat on the Republican incumbent, Donald Trump, who was deemed to be the source of America’s current crisis. But Trump has stood his ground in the face of strong opposition from the traditional political establishment, the debilitating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, intense media hostility, and an impeachment effort. Trump increased his popular vote from the 2016 elections by about 5 million and won nearly 48 per cent of the vote. His impressive performance highlights the tension between two equally strong but opposite political forces in America.

Close votes should not be a problem in resilient democracies, if the voting and counting procedures are credible, transparent and not open to contestation. But the messy process in the US, where each state has the right to decide on its own voting procedures, has become worse this time around. Whether Trump is justified in turning to the courts or not, the fact is voting rules were changed in this election. Citing the coronavirus, Democrats pressed and got the courts to agree on a new procedure of mass mailing out of ballot papers to all registered voters. The Republicans objected and pointed to the potential problems with ensuring the integrity of the process. The issue of what is a “legitimate” vote, which all agree must be counted in full, is back with the courts.

The next president could start by establishing a new set of common nationwide rules for conducting elections. That could help reduce inevitable friction in close and bitterly fought contests. Many Americans have long questioned the electoral college system that privileges the voters in the small states over those in large states. But the resistance to a direct election of the president is deep. Whether electoral reforms can be put on the agenda or not, the US badly needs a presidency that can bridge the current domestic political divide. On his part, Trump had some success in expanding the Republican reach to the minorities and the working classes, but his grating personal style, political indiscipline and the inability to build a new consensus within the ruling elite has left him ineffective and vulnerable. Biden has promised to unite the nation, but he heads an unwieldy political coalition that is bound to fall apart once Trump is no longer the president. All democracies have a way of rising to the challenges, and the US system is, hopefully, capable of self-correction to transcend the current crisis that goes deeper than Trump’s failings as a leader.

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