A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Ron Daley: Are we losing our democracy in the nation and in Kentucky? What’s wrong and how do we fix it?

It took nearly 200 years for the great experiment created in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to become a true democracy. After 232 years America is losing elements of its democracy.

The question remains will our nation and the Commonwealth of Kentucky keep their democratic framework?

Historians point out that many of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had serious reservations about democracy believing it promoted anarchy. In order to prevent giving the people too much democratic power, the all-male group of delegates decided senators were chosen by the state legislatures, not elected directly by the people. It was not until the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 direct election of senators became law. As another safeguard, the delegates created the Electoral College to elect the president. Each state has a certain number of electors, which is its number of senators (two) plus its number of representatives in the House of Representatives.

The first Congress took steps to promote key elements of a democracy with the Bill of Rights ratification in 1789, including the right to free speech.

Critical leaps were made with the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. They were passed in order to abolish slavery and to establish the rights of former slaves. 14th Amendment (1868). The 15th Amendment, granting African American men the right to vote, was adopted into the U.S. Constitution in 1870.

The 19th Amendment guaranteeing all American women the right to vote was a lengthy and difficult struggle but finally passed in 1920.

African Americans continued to face discriminatory laws preventing them from voting in the south, primarily through the poll tax. The 24th Amendment passed in 1964 eliminating this and other taxes concerning regulating/restricting voting. The 1965 Voting Act (again a law opposed by many in the south) gave added protections. Also, during the 1960’s, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that each vote should be equal; being a “one man one vote” rule. In 1972 the Supreme Court ruled that state legislatures had to redistrict every ten years based on census results; at that point, many had not redistricted for decades, often leading to a rural deficit.

During the Vietnam Conflict young people maintained that if they had to fight in a war, they should be able to vote. The 26th Amendment was approved dropping the eligible voting age from 21 to 18 years old in 1971.

American democracy has not fared so well in recent decades, however. Partisan politics, entrenched politicians without term limits, gerrymandering of legislative districts, the allowance of dark money with no restrictions in elections, efforts to prevent voter registration and voting, attacks on the press and governmental systems, partisan media outlets, and a new power of social media and digital platforms are used to confuse and pressure voters are attacking the basic fundamentals of democracy.

President George Washington warned the new nation about the threat to democratic principles in his brilliant Farewell Address in 1796, including the divisiveness of factions (political parties). At that time, there were two strong factions; the Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton and the Democratic-Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Washington maintained that every government had recognized political parties as an enemy and had sought to repress them because of their tendency to seek more power than other groups and to take revenge on political opponents. He acknowledged that it was natural for citizens to organize into political groups.

A case can be made that the strong two-party structure in the 21st Century threatens democracy. The Founding Fathers did not envision a party structure that would enable federal legislators to remain in their positions for decades. This party system has led to congressional rules creating seniority and resulting in powerful committee assignments based on party. These entrenched politicians can raise more campaign funds from monied and lobbying interests helping them to secure reelection.

The party controlling the state legislatures redraws the state legislative districts and the congressional boundaries to aid their control. “Gerrymandering” allows the majority party to create safe districts while targeting other legislative districts. The result is a dominant party in the respective district not giving all the citizens a true voting voice. A Democratic voter living in a district made up with 80 percent Republican means their vote is not worth as much as a voter in a swing district in local races. The same is true for a Republican living in a heavily Democratic district. Moderate voters are squeezed out of political influence since Republicans now run toward the conservative base in heavy Republican districts and Democrats run toward the liberal base in Democratic strongholds.

The rise of effective partisan media outlets in the last two decades has promoted the agenda of one of the two parties causing citizens to be more entrenched in their beliefs and discouraging open and friendly debate on the issues. Liberals gravitate to MSNBC while conservatives watch FOX News. Since the media outlets in television and radio must compete for their audiences, news has devolved into “shock talk” to fire up their base of viewers. The result is the loss of true discussion between our citizens, exploring solutions and finding common ground, which is an essential component of democracy.

Shows like Rachel Maddow on MSNBC and Sean Hannity on FOX are not news. They are opinion pieces that are not always factual. However, they are aired in prime time and often promoted as being NEWS.

Money has always been a key factor influencing voters and winning elections. However, the rise of “dark money” where vast sums are contributed to a candidate and PAC without the pubic knowing its origin is a major threat to our democratic elections. Dark Money groups were aided by the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in “FEC v Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc.” (2008) and “Citizens United v FEC” (2010). The Court ruled (by a 5–4 vote) In Citizens United that corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for or against political candidates.

Billionaires and millionaires are permitted to use their wealth to become viable and successful candidates.

Significant groups of American and Kentucky citizens are not able to vote or have obstacles placed in their way to vote. One key group is those incarcerated. America has the largest number of citizens and percentage of incarcerated citizens in the world. Kentucky has the eighth largest percentage of adults incarcerated in the nation. In 2016, the national average per 100,000 persons incarcerated was 850 compared to 1,010 in the Commonwealth.

Kentucky ranks 40h in the nation with ease in voting according to a 2018 study published in the Election Law Journal. Mississippi ranked last and neighboring Tennessee ranked 48th. Kentucky has resisted efforts to make it easier to vote by allowing early voting which includes weekend voting, extended voting hours, and enabling voters to register to vote in election day at the polls.

Efforts to make it harder for people to vote with voter registration ID laws and other mechanisms gained steam in the last decade. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “After the 2010 election, state lawmakers nationwide started introducing hundreds of harsh measures making it harder to vote. The new laws range from strict photo ID requirements to early voting cutbacks to registration restrictions.

“Overall, 25 states have put in place new restrictions since then — 15 states have more restrictive voter ID laws in place (including six states with strict photo ID requirements), 12 have laws making it harder for citizens to register (and stay registered), ten made it more difficult to vote early or absentee, and three took action to make it harder to restore voting rights for people with past criminal convictions.”

Studies have indicated that the new voter laws which started during the Obama presidency do suppress minority voter turnout. These strict ID laws have been passed almost exclusively by Republican legislatures. In Kentucky, the newly elected Kentucky Secretary of State ran on a campaign “Easy to Vote – Hard to Cheat” advocating “Photo ID law” to replace current law (KRS 117.227) that allows a voter to vote with a “credit card” or other non-Photo ID document.

Furthermore, unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud by governmental officials or candidates undermine the public’s confidence in the electoral process.

An educated and informed electorate is critical in democracies. Education increases the likelihood of voting. Kentucky has made great strides in education but still needs improvement in educating adults.

Having confidence in the press and willingness to follow news coverage will keep citizens informed. Kentuckians, according to the 2016 Civic Health Index released by the Kentucky Secretary of State’s Office, have much distrust of the press.

The report found,” Public confidence in the media is among the lowest ranking for this indicator among Kentuckians. Only 46.5% report that they are a great deal or somewhat confident in the media, compared to 55% nationally. Out of the 50 states and D.C., Kentucky ranks 48th in the U.S. in this indicator— ahead of only Utah (51st), Montana (50th), and New Mexico (49th). Women exceed both the state and the national average, with a level of 57.5% (compared to men, with a level of 50.3%). Confidence has also fallen since 2011, when 60.3% of residents were somewhat or very confident in the media—closely matching the national average of 62%.”

The new jargon of “fake news” and attacks on the press further undermines American’s belief in the Fourth Estate, an institution that opens the door to transparency in government. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”

The question of truth and what to believe is made more difficult in the digital age where people with political agendas can manipulate social media platforms. The revelations about how Russia interfered in our 2016 presidential election manipulating public opinion on Facebook and other social media is a major threat to our and other democracies. They very effectively sowed divisions among our citizens.

Former the Homeland Security Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen said, “Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and it has become clear that they are the target of our adversaries, who seek … to sow discord and undermine our way of life.”

We are in uncharted waters in this digital frontier and how it will continue to impact our democracy and way of life. We are in a period where partisanship outweighs desire to compromise and discuss commonalities. People, including our neighbors, increasingly look like enemies instead of fellow Americans or Kentuckians in this climate of political hate. Winning elections at all costs has made it practically impossible to respect different opinions.
The question posed to Ben Franklin by a woman as he left the Constitutional Convention of 1787 is the same question for us today. “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” With no hesitation whatsoever, Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Do we truly value democracy and do we wish to preserve it in our nation and in Kentucky? Our citizens need to take a hard look at the events of the last two decades and in more recent years in order to determine our future course.

Ron Daley now resides in Lexington and continues to work as the strategic lead for the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC). KVEC is a consortium of 23 school districts.

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