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January 19th, 2021
Legitimacy
Susan Reed People and Operations Manager, North America

Who gets to vote? Whose vote counts?

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We say voting is free to all US citizens over 18 who register, but Susan Reed discusses caveats that limit who gets to vote & whose matter

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"As violence permeated Capitol, people wondered what became of respecting election results" @CPI_foundation questions legitimacy in the US

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Susan Reed calls for removal of systemic & legislated barriers to voting, encouraging civic participation & bolstering election's legitimacy

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One of the hallmarks of American society is that we benefit from free and fair elections. What undergirds our ability to do so is the Constitution, our history of agitation for voting rights for people of color and women, and our commitment to the anonymity of voters’ selections. The foundation of trust in our government is the notion that it is supported and chosen by the people’s will–that whichever candidate successfully garners the most votes in a given election deserves to represent that majority.

The first week of January 2021 challenged those ideas to their core and highlighted the result of the declining trust in government that has occurred over the past several decades. As rioters stormed the Capitol, citizens of all political parties and stripes looked on with horror as hundreds of people took over one of the most sacred, revered symbols of democracy. They did this in an attempt to undermine the results of the most recent presidential election. As violence permeated the Capitol halls, Americans and people all over the world wondered what had become of the tradition of respecting election results – whether we were satisfied with the outcome or not. 

This attempt to discredit the choice of voters has been ongoing throughout this election cycle. It epitomizes the urgent need to have broader conversations about reimagining government so that it works for all and engenders trust and belief. As Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams noted last year, “It’s important I think that our system is seen as legitimate. There’s a lot of concern right now about the legitimacy of our elections. We can’t have that.”

As violence permeated the Capitol halls, Americans and people all over the world wondered what had become of the tradition of respecting election results – whether we were satisfied with the outcome or not.

In the months leading up to and following the 2020 election, the eventual results were a global conversation topic. Would we see voting rates plummet during the pandemic? Would we be able to adjust our voting methods and maintain election security? Would we exclude population segments with our adjustments? When the results of the election came to light, voting advocates were pleased to affirm the election was one of “the most secure” elections in American history (despite rhetoric to the contrary), with voter turnout at its highest volume ever in absolute terms. Of the 240 million people in the 18+ citizen bracket that were eligible to vote, an estimated 161 million of them voted in November 2020, yielding a 67% turnout. Relative to our past, this was one of the most successful, robust elections ever.

But what gets lost in those statistics is the reality that casting a ballot remains a challenge for millions of people and, even after results have been vetted, Americans still can question those outcomes in a way that undermines the power of a vote. We say voting is free to all US citizens over 18 who register to vote, but the stark reality is the many caveats and qualifiers that we put on people limit who gets to vote and whose vote counts. While very few things about 2020 could be described as “traditional,” one feature of this election that’s remained consistent with modern US voting is voter suppression. This suppression comes in two variants.

Legislated Barriers

Voters face barriers to voting from the actual laws surrounding elections, which leave massive segments of the population unable to vote at all or with a vote that carries less weight than other Americans. Legislated barriers to voting include:

Systemic Barriers

Voters also face additional barriers to casting a ballot due to the way we conduct elections – from the date we choose to the locations we pick. Systemic barriers to voting include: 

Part of what made the 2020 election so historic was that, after we removed many of the systemic barriers to voting by adopting mail-in ballots, we saw that more people than ever wanted the opportunity to vote and were able to do so. Despite constant attempts to undermine and then overturn the election, the great news is that the many Americans who wanted to have a say got their chance. In fact, relative to our population size, this was the highest voter turnout in over 120 years! When we removed the barriers to access, we encouraged civic participation and bolstered our election’s objective legitimacy in a tremendously empowering and impactful way.

Many of those who stormed the Capital would object to these expansions in voting access. It may seem paradoxical to advocate for solutions to increase legitimacy that would be rejected by those who most fervently decry the government as illegitimate. This disillusionment towards government cannot be solved by restricting democracy to those determined to overthrow it, but by expanding it and strengthening it for those who want to participate.

When we removed the barriers to access, we encouraged civic participation and bolstered our election’s objective legitimacy in a tremendously empowering and impactful way.

Though it may have taken us a pandemic and a growing crisis of mistrust to reframe our elections and the voting process, the progress made over the past months cannot be discounted.  The 2020 election gives us a critical case study about how we can encourage more people to vote by re-designing the systems in place that curtail the political involvement of so many Americans. As politician and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams reminds us, “Because America wins by fighting for our shared values against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That is who we are, and when we do so, never wavering, the state of our union will always be strong.”

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Written by:

Susan Reed People and Operations Manager, North America
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