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Our Divided States

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Graphic of voters at voting booths

UC San Diego political scientists discuss the current state of American democracy

By Inga Kiderra | UC San Diego Today

This story was published in the Spring 2023 issue of UC San Diego Magazine.

Finding practical solutions to some of the most pressing problems in the U.S. drives the work of political scientists Zoltan Hajnal and Thad Kousser. They are co-directors of the Yankelovich Center for Social Science Research at UC San Diego, an organization that works to identify what ails our society and serves as an incubator for pioneering ideas that can be translated into tangible solutions in the real world. 

The Yankelovich Center supports research-practice partnerships that spur public engagement and civic improvements, addressing issues that range from transportation to political disinformation to refugee protection. Currently, Hajnal and Kousser each lead their own research projects at the center — and both are related to democracy-building and voting reforms. Hajnal is collaborating with the racial justice organization More Equitable Democracy to identify reforms that would help local governments address racial and ethnic inequities and increase voter participation. Kousser is working with the New Electorate Project, a team of statewide University of California scholars, to evaluate how new voting reforms impact the size and makeup of the state’s voting pool.

Hajnal and Kousser sat down with UC San Diego Magazine to discuss what they see as the biggest threats to American democracy — and some possible solutions.

Thad Kousser, UC San Diego political scientist

What is the state of American democracy today?

THAD KOUSSER: Today’s threats to American democracy are a return to — rather than a departure from — what we’ve seen through much of our history. The waves of assassinations in the 1960s, the violence surrounding elections in the late 19th century and the laws crafted by Southern states to betray the Constitution’s promise of voting rights for Black Americans — all of these challenged the principles and practices of our democracy. The relatively peaceful and inclusive system that we’ve enjoyed for the past 50 years is the aberration that we’ll need to work hard to preserve rather than a constant we can rely upon.

ZOLTAN HAJNAL: Our history has been a battle between those interested in a full and inclusive democracy and others who favor a more limited and less inclusive democracy. The battle has gone back and forth over time, with periods of greater equality often followed by resentment and retrenchment. We are in a perilous moment today. Yet the forces for greater equality have generally won numerous rights of considerable importance in the past. I am hopeful that enough Americans will fight today to ensure a path toward greater equality continues.

What is most concerning to you?

ZH: Two things: I am concerned that some are questioning democracy itself and are raising doubts about the peaceful transfer of power from one leader to the next. I am also concerned that key actors in our democracy are trying to gain power by instituting laws and procedures that reduce the ability of the most disadvantaged to engage in our system of government. Too much of the country is moving toward less democracy rather than more.

TK: The threats to democracy are distinct but interrelated. We’ve lost the bipartisan consensus that our elections are free and fair. The sides that lost the past two presidential races lost their trust in elections even when all objective evidence shows that there was no fraud on a scale that could tip their outcomes. This leads voters to back policies that make it harder to vote, in the name of solving a problem that does not truly exist. And when we retreat on voting rights and exclude any group from the electorate, this can further erode trust in our elections and our democracy overall.

“The relatively peaceful and inclusive system that we’ve enjoyed for the past 50 years is the aberration that we’ll need to work hard to preserve rather than a constant we can rely upon.”

Professor Thad Kousser, UC San Diego Department of Political Science

Professor Zoltan Hajnal, UC San Diego political scientist

What are some possible solutions?

ZH: While much of the country is increasingly limiting democracy, the rest is working hard to expand democracy, and many states are passing laws to try to increase and broaden participation. If those who care about a fairer and more equitable democracy work hard enough together — like the Yankelovich Center and other organizations — we can institute new laws that ensure easier access to voting, even more participation and equitable outcomes. For example, we have already helped to move the dates of local elections in several states to November of even years. That small shift in election timing has made it easier to vote in those local elections, bringing in more than a million new voters.

TK: The Yankelovich Center has been working closely with elections officials in Texas, Georgia, Colorado and California to conduct surveys to understand people’s trust in the elections. We’re also testing videos and social media campaigns to explain the protections these states put in place to stop fraud. Through rigorous experimental methods, we have found that these messages can significantly increase trust in elections among Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike. Elections officials are sharing the results of our studies with their colleagues to advocate for state funding to support public information campaigns. The goal is to inform and increase trust leading into the 2024 presidential election.

Learn more about the Yankelovich Center for Social Science Research at yankelovichcenter.ucsd.edu

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