Beltway veteran Victoria Bassetti thinks an awful lot about voting. And so do her fellow Americans, if our preoccupation with all-things-presidential for the past year is anything to go by. But in between obsessing over the toeing of party lines, partisan bickering and campaign gaffes, Bassetti thinks that many Americans may be overlooking something far more important: the flaws in our voting process.
Bassetti's Electoral Dysfunction: A Survival Manual for American Voters, a companion piece to PBS' feature-length documentary of the same name starring humorist Mo Rocca, investigates the ins and outs of the democratic process. Readers may be surprised, and often disturbed, with Bassetti's findings.
"We've got an election system that is totally scattershot," she says. "Every voter in every district has different rules and methods for voting in place. There is a startling lack of uniformity. We've got incredibly frustrated voters and rising voter apathy. That hurts our democracy."
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Did you find it hard getting up in the morning knowing that your job was trying to make the Electoral College look interesting?
I definitely struggled with writing a lot of these chapters to try to figure out how to make what can be deadly dull issues interesting. And I hope I succeeded. That was always my goal—to make it lively. I filled it with anecdotes and stories to make it seem practical and real rather than abstract.
The current nationwide voter suppression drive that Republicans are engaged in is arguably based on the notion that some Americans are simply more suited to vote than others. But that idea is hardly new is it?
It is a time-honored American tradition to try and belittle voters. To say that they aren't smart enough, that only incredibly intelligent people should be able to vote, or you should have to pass a civics test before you can vote. There are plenty of people who said that in the 18th century, the 19th century, the 20th century and the 21st century. It's never going to stop. I happen to disagree with that perspective because I think democracies are about resolving conflict and having a deliberative process that brings us all together and allows our system of government to make decisions. Once you begin to exclude groups of people, be it on the basis of intelligence, race or gender, you undermine the ability of our society and our democracy to move forward. When you start excluding vast swaths of people from being able to participate in democracy, all you're doing is cutting them out of the process, angering them and ultimately sowing the seeds for the overall destruction of our society.
Can you talk about the reaction you get from people when they learn that the right to vote is actually not explicitly stated in the U.S. Constitution?
When I first started researching this book, I kept scratching my head going, "No. Come on. It's got to be there!" It's so funny because I have had numerous conversations with lawyers, too, and I can't begin to tell you how many incredibly fierce arguments I've had with people about this because they just say, "No, no. It has to be there." And then they'll go home and read the Constitution and say, "Well, doesn't this mean that there is a right to vote?" It is really surprising when you come around to realizing that the way our Constitution was written, there is no overarching right to vote. There's only possibly an implied right, and there are these negative rights in there—you can't deny voting on the basis of race or sex or that someone is 19 years old, for instance. But the kind of large, broad sweeping right, like we've got with the First Amendment, there's not a comparable statement of aspirations or of rights regarding voting in the U.S. Constitution.
What does that say about our supposedly Democratic country?
I think that when the founders were drafting the Constitution, they made the compromises necessary to get the Constitution adopted. And that it was a practical decision they made not to put in the right to vote into the Constitution. They could not, at that time, impose universal suffrage. We certainly couldn't have imposed uniformed suffrage rules across the 13 states that were about to join the United States; there would have been too much conflict between the states. It wasn't going to wash. So, I think that in the intervening years since the Constitution was adopted, with the bare exception of the passages of the 14th and 15th Amendments, we really haven't had any moment when we grappled with this issue and forced ourselves to really confront the way we run elections and voting. We came really close in 2000. The real question now, is whether or not it's going to take a complete breakdown in an election in order for us to grapple with it. Or whether or not we can deal with it without having a disaster on our shores.
What were some of the other things you found surprising while researching this book?
It wasn't a surprise as much as it was a disappointment to learn just how thoroughly and comprehensively political parties manipulate what should be free from party manipulation. Voting is the most fundamental ingredient in a democracy, and to see it subject to partisan manipulations in all of its myriad ways is not surprising. But it is saddening.
What's the number one thing we can do to invigorate our anemic democracy?
My number one thing would be to get partisanship out of the system. And there are a number of states that have already created nonpartisan or bipartisan election administrations boards. I wouldn't allow state legislators or partisan-appointed election administrators to make rules about how the voting system is run. And I certainly wouldn't want them to be making these rules two months before a presidential election.