The Most Important Question Facing Americans Today

Who counts?

A sequence of three images, from the 1940s, 80s, and 2018 of American voters.
Who gets to decide who we are? Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images, Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images, and Loren Elliott/Getty Images.

Far too often, voting rights are a dormant topic up until the week before a general election, when we suddenly start to worry about shuttered polling places, long lines, and glitchy voting machines. But the unglamorous issue of voting is more important than any one candidate or any one issue. Because no matter who our next president is, and what they do or don’t plan to accomplish, if your vote doesn’t count, nothing else really does, either.

Public confidence in the power of “one person, one vote” is at an all-time low. Unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud have helped undermine core trust in the very cornerstones of constitutional democracy: the proposition that every vote matters. The long-term project of voter suppression has been undertaken not simply to ensure that certain communities are devalued and bricked out of the democratic process, but also to foment the belief that the entire system is pointless and corrupt. At some level, the nihilism is the point: In an NPR–Marist University poll conducted just before the 2018 midterms, 47 percent of the respondents indicated that they lacked faith that all votes cast would be counted fairly. Nearly 5 in 10 nonwhite voters reported that they believed it unlikely that all votes would be counted. Forty percent of voters felt that U.S. elections are no longer fair. The lack of confidence is hardly misplaced, as the gap between the popular vote and the Electoral College widens and as the results of close elections are repeatedly thrown into doubt.

But if you still believe that democracy matters—as I want to—then we must be focused on the right to vote, right now, and on into the indefinite future. To be sure, voting alone can’t fix what ails this country, but we can’t fix anything without a meaningful, immutable, and equal right to vote. And defending the future of free and fair elections requires not just pointing out the jurisdictions that are getting it wrong—by suppressing student voting or implementing illegal voter purges—but also shining a light on jurisdictions that are getting it right, with mail-in ballots or independent redistricting committees. It requires not just being outraged by the fact that the Senate has shown no interest in investigating foreign election interference, but also examining what the consequences might be in elections to come. Whether or not you are counted in 2020 will affect whether or not you actually count thereafter.

Who Counts? logo
A question debated since the founding. Slate

It’s easy to blame our current president for dividing the nation. But from its very founding America has been a country defined by formal and informal referendums on its insiders and outsiders. U.S. history is a patchwork of laws and traditions that enforced the brutal legacy of slavery and repressed the rights of women and minorities for centuries. The immigration system was designed around the exclusion of designated nationalities, religions and races. Native Americans, the first Americans, were not properly counted since the founding; it is no accident that their votes are being discounted in advance of the coming elections. This nation has long struggled to define who counts as American and who does the counting.

The United States is now facing a moment that may once again redefine who really counts in this country, and what happens to those who don’t. Much of the maelstrom around Donald Trump’s electoral victory stemmed from the shock of recognition that many purportedly democratic institutions have come to serve anti-democratic purposes: Fears swirled over the Electoral College, gerrymandered districts, and hacked elections.

At the same time, the aftermath of the 2016 election has forced substantive new questions about who gets to be an American. We’ve seen a flood of new rules that will make seeking legal asylum all but impossible. The courts have fielded blatant efforts to rig the census to ensure that only citizens have representation and resources. The administration now claims that the 14th Amendment can be amended by executive order to preclude birthright citizenship. Over the past few years, the machinery of government has made the dividing lines all too clear.

These sweeping projects are accompanied by the rollout of incredibly specific, targeted changes to deport immigrants who have served in the U.S. armed forces, or those with terminal illnesses, and to limit immigration to those who will never need public benefits. Each of these efforts is troubling in isolation, but together they make a foundational claim not just about who is counted for electoral purposes but also, by definition, who counts as deserving of rights and fair treatment under the law.

Meanwhile, other marginalized communities have begun to find their voices and claim a right to power. The first representative of an indigenous tribe is poised to enter Congress. Floridians voted to restore the franchise to felons. The nation hovers on the edge of becoming “majority-minority,”  and young people are showing unprecedented interest in both voting and governance.

These tensions have been litigated over and over again in American history. At various periods, the franchise has been vastly expanded to secure a capacious view of both who is counted and who counts; at times it has shrunk back, as we have seen in recent years. I’ve been working as a journalist for only 20 years of that history. Yet I have never so acutely felt the possibility that this fault line in America’s self-conception could tear the country apart, or that the results of elections could be rejected outright as “fake news.” And no one—not those attempting to vastly restrict who gets to take part, nor those seeking to expand the franchise—has much faith in the corporate, technological, and governmental powers that be. And we have even less understanding of how foreign interventions and social media may further corrupt and corrode these antiquated institutions. No matter what happens after next November, the pieces are going to have to be picked up by regular Americans reinvesting in and reinvigorating our institutions. The courts, my own focus, have proven time and again that litigating broken elections after the fact is not a viable, just, or long-term solution. This is something that requires focused attention from everyone.

But to do that, Americans must become what the founders sort of doubted that Americans could ever be: an informed, engaged, noncynical public. And that’s where my job comes in. In this project that we are announcing today, and will be rolling out more formally in the weeks to come, Slate’s reporters, editors, and producers are going to be spending the next 14 months exhaustively exploring the central question of our time: Who counts? It’s a big project, one that will require additional resources for issue-clarifying interactive storytelling, for traveling to places that too often go overlooked, for ambitious commissioned features. We’ll still be tracking the polls, as always. But we want to do more, and, to repurpose the old adage, we want to think about voting early and often, rather than leaving it until November of 2020 and throwing up our hands. That’s why we are asking for your support, and why we will be updating you every step of the way with the progress of our work.

This project admittedly requires holding two irreconcilable ideas in your head as you contribute to and help refine the debate about who belongs here and who gets to participate in this ongoing experiment in self-governance: The American elections system as it currently exists is anti-democratic by design and corruptible in practice—and yet only through elections can we arrive at a better one. I want to understand that contradiction better—we all must. I will need your help to do it.

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