Rick Hasen’s Election Meltdown tells a story of democracy in decline. Americans are riven by conflict, distrustful of one another, and bitterly divided over how we should run our elections. His book identifies four main culprits: vote suppression, administrative incompetence, dirty tricks, and overheated rhetoric about stolen or rigged elections. This constellation of problems, he contends, has diminished public faith in elections and threatens to undermine our democracy.
I wish I could say he’s wrong. But in reality, I fear that he’s only scratched the surface. The pathologies in American democracy run even deeper than those on which Electoral Meltdown dwells. And they won’t be solved by election law alone. Rather, they demand a confrontation with the two centrifugal forces: partisan polarization and economic inequality. Until we deal with these larger structural issues, the voting wars that he describes will continue to rage unabated.
Early on, Rick emphasizes that his book is not about Donald Trump, and for good reason. The electoral conflicts that are at the center of his book predate Trump’s presidency. Still, it’s an understatement to say that “Trump is more a symptom of the American system’s malfunction than a cause” (p. 12). To paraphrase Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally, that symptom is screwing our democracy. President Trump’s repeated contention that the last election was “rigged” (before he won), wild assertions of pervasive voter fraud, and general disdain for truth exacerbate the mutual contempt that has enveloped the country. President Trump has made American democracy worse. Rick is surely right that a disputed presidential election in 2020 would be even more destabilizing than the divisive conflict that culminated in Bush v. Gore two decades ago.