Economic fixes can make 2024 election less fraught

The cost of voting is one reason that despite historic turnout, only 63% of voting-age Americans took part in November’s election

  
U.S. Marines stand at the west front of the Capitol before the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, in Washington, U.S. January 20, 2021. Image for illustrative purposes.

U.S. Marines stand at the west front of the Capitol before the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, in Washington, U.S. January 20, 2021. Image for illustrative purposes.

REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

NEW YORK - Joe Biden started his term as U.S. president on Wednesday with a call for unity and moderation, an affirmation that “democracy has prevailed,” and a list of tasks a mile long. Amid the calls for environmental and racial justice is a massive plan to realign the economy. If he succeeds, it could help make future elections less fraught – whether or not he’s in them.

Wealth and income influence not just how Americans vote, but whether they want to, and whether they can. Voting in many states requires standing in line for many hours, which is hard for poorly-paid workers in what economists euphemistically call a “flexible” job market. Those from low-income communities face the greatest challenges. They also skewed Democrat in 2020, according to Edison Research exit polls.

The cost of voting is one reason that despite historic turnout, only 63% of voting-age Americans took part in November’s election. That still leaves the United States below more than 20 other OECD countries tallied by Pew Research. Some measures that Biden backed, including higher hourly wages and more legal protection for gig-economy workers, would help incentivize turnout further in future elections.

On the flipside, there are voting reforms that would help improve economic outcomes. Districts come in often-ludicrous shapes, from crocodiles to earmuffs. The Center for American Progress found that gerrymandering, as it is called, on average shifted results in recent elections in 59 congressional districts – equivalent, it estimates, to representation for 42 million Americans.

Ironing out those oddities could help close income gaps too. Representatives over more diverse areas would have an incentive to level out peaks and troughs in prosperity in their district. And candidates exposed to competitive elections are more likely to fight for resources their constituents demand. Bringing in better safeguards against gerrymandering would likely require the support of 60 senators, making it an aspirational goal. But unlike dismantling the electoral college system, it doesn’t require a constitutional change.

Fixing up the electoral system, and the economic deterrents to voting, doesn’t guarantee that one party will win more often. But a system that better reflects what the majority of Americans want would help to promote moderate results. Donald Trump took power in 2016 with the votes of around one-quarter of Americans old enough to join the ballot. Close the economic gap, and the democratic kind ought to follow.

CONTEXT NEWS

- Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th U.S. president on Jan. 20.

- "Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause: the cause of democracy," Biden said in his inauguration address. "Democracy has prevailed."

- Mitch McConnell, the outgoing majority leader of the Senate, said on Jan. 19 that Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump had “provoked” a mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to impeach Trump for “incitement of insurrection.” Prosecution would require the support of 67 senators out of 100.

- Senator Chuck Schumer, the leading Democrat in the U.S. upper legislative chamber, said on Jan. 19 that the first bill considered by the new Congress would be the For the People Act, which includes reforms to the U.S. electoral system. The bill was passed by the House of Representatives in 2019.

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

(Editing by Lauren Silva Laughlin and Amanda Gomez) ((john.foley@thomsonreuters.com; Reuters Messaging: john.foley.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))


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