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NOTE: This piece is part of a collection of local essays on elections and trust.

“Free and fair elections” is a requirement for “democracy.”  But in the United States, the future of that fundamental condition is in danger.  Even before the 2020 election, there has been an attack on democratic principles. Specifically, there has been an alarming increase in the number of bills introduced that would limit access to the ballot.  The Brennan Center identified 49 states that introduced 440 bills to restrict voting, with 19 states passing 33 provisions.  In 2022, more than 100 bills will carry over or have been pre-filed, including in Missouri, with more to come.  Particularly concerning are efforts to politicize election administration, seeking to give elected politicians the ability to overrule election officials. 

It wasn’t long ago that if a party lost an election, its leaders sought to right the ship by rethinking policy, mobilization strategies, and other adjustments. The McGovern-Fraser Commission, which opened up the Democratic presidential nomination process after 1968 (Republicans adopted something similar a few years later), and Republicans after 1976 and Democrats after 2004 going back to the drawing board after losses are just a few examples.

But modern-day partisan polarization renders it quaint to recall a time when party identification was a guide, but not always determinative of the vote. In 1980 and 1984, without changing their party identification, many Democrats voted for Ronald Reagan. These “Reagan Democrats” also voted for George H.W. Bush in 1988, and Bill Clinton brought them home in 1992.

Today, however, partisanship is almost synonymous with the vote for candidates. In 1988, about 75 percent of partisans voted for their party’s candidate. In the last few election cycles, that number has increased to well more than 90 percent who do so. But partisanship is sometimes not a predictor of policy preference. Missourians have firmly placed Republicans in charge of nearly all statewide elected offices and super-majority status in both legislative chambers. At the same time, they voted for progressive initiatives such as Medicaid expansion, election reform, minimum wage increase, and medical marijuana, and voting against the anti-union Right to Work proposal.

Finally, and tellingly, voter trust in voters themselves has declined. Gallup shows that in 1978, 86 percent trusted citizens (i.e. themselves) to make decisions.  As political polarization increased, citizen trust in themselves declined, now barely registering 55 percent. That, combined with the erosion of other democratic norms, leaves the integrity and health of the American electoral system in doubt.   

Daniel E. Ponder | Guest author

Daniel E. Ponder, Ph.D., L.E. Meador Professor of Political Science, Director of the Meador Center for Politics and Citizenship, Drury University