The idea of “one person one vote” is a basic democratic principle that recognizes the rights and equality of all citizens regardless of race, gender and social status. Nevertheless, we must be aware that legality on paper and implementation in reality are two entirely different things. Being the oldest democracy, the United States best illustrates how its voting system has evolved, its failed implementation, and its new opportunities.
In 1788, twelve years after the declaration of independence from Great Britain, the first presidential election was held in the United States based on the votes of white males only. In 1870, after the Civil War that liberated all African slaves, the 15th Amendment was ratified allowing all male citizens to vote regardless of race or color. However, in most Southern States, African Americans had to surmount all kinds of obstacles including poll taxes, literacy tests, and the laughable grandfather clause to prove that their grandfathers who were slaves were somehow miraculously allowed to vote. This legal discrimination was finally terminated in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Acts. Even today, voting restrictions still exist in the form of identity cards, residency and absentee ballot requirements.
Regarding women’s right to vote, the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920 allowing female voting for the first time. Despite being late, the US was fifty years ahead of Switzerland that first allowed women to vote in 1971. As for native American Indians, they were made citizens only in 1924 giving them the right to vote. Voting rights came to Asian Americans later than other minority groups. Chinese immigrants were first granted citizenship in 1943, hence voting rights. Japanese Americans were first allowed to vote in 1952. Thus we see democracy moves like a turtle. Without protests, bloodshed, and pressure from the public, it may not even move at all.
Now that the legal obstacles regarding race and gender seem to have disappeared in most democratic countries, there remains the biggest and most subtle obstacle that will be very hard to overcome. It is money, power and the inherent biases that corrupt the democratic process. Do you think a very rich person or a corporation has in reality bigger voting power than yourself? Definitely! Those able to use money as a weapon can easily corrupt the democratic process by simply buying the legislators whom we have voted based on the principle of “one person one vote”. Consequently, democracy only works if the people we elect to public office have moral integrity. Since all persons are corruptible and some are easier to bribe than others, the more corrupt people we elect, the more corrupted will be our democratic system.
The election system in most democratic countries, especially the US, renders itself susceptible to bribery. The reason is that a political campaign costs a lot of money without the guarantee of success. An aspiring politician must find sponsors to finance his/her election campaign. Rich businessmen or big corporations are eager to donate money with strings attached. After being elected, the legislator is obliged to pay back by passing laws favorable to the sponsors. In the US, big corporations and rich individuals routinely donate millions of dollars to the politicians of both major parties so that they will receive favorable treatments no matter which side wins the election.
During the Presidential Election of 2008, Barack Obama changed the game by soliciting small personal donations on the Internet rather than relying on rich people and corporations for funding. The results were amazing. There were 3 million donors and 6.5 million donations, showing that many people gave money more than once. The total fund raised was over half a billion dollars, averaging $80 or less per donation. This demonstrates the power of the Internet for the promotion of democracy. It does so by mobilizing public fundraising away from the funding sources concentrated in the big corporations and rich individuals. Since the small donors do not attach any strings to their donations, Obama was not obliged to return any favors after being elected. Hence his hands were not tied by any business interests in the performance of his duties as President.
What is happening in the United States shows that democracy cannot just rest in the simple ideal of “one person one vote” because many factors can cause the democratic process to go astray. To achieve a fuller and better democracy, we should stick to three important practices: First, widen voter participation rather than restricting it. Second, guard against bribes coming from big corporations and rich individuals. And third, expose any unjust or corrupt practices that corrode the democratic process.