Democratic Legitimacy under Conditions of Severely Depressed Voter Turnout

18 Pages Posted: 3 Jun 2020

Date Written: May 28, 2020

Abstract

Due to the present pandemic, it seems increasingly likely that the 2020 general election in November will be held under conditions of unprecedented downward pressure on voter turnout. The possibility of severely depressed turnout for a highly consequential presidential election raises troubling questions of democratic legitimacy. Although voter turnout in the United States has historically been poor, low turnout is not usually thought to threaten the legitimacy of electoral processes when it results from voluntary abstention and is distributed unsystematically. Conversely, electoral legitimacy is often considered at risk when nonvoting is involuntary, especially when obstacles to voting fall systematically on specific populations. If turnout in November is unusually low but largely voluntary and unsystematic, then the risks to legitimacy should be low. If, however, nonvoting is both widespread and involuntary, and especially if obstacles to voting seem systematically directed at specific groups, conditions will be in place for a significant escalation of the threat. In particular, concerns of electoral legitimacy, which place in doubt only the authority of specific election winners to occupy the offices to which they have purportedly been elected, may ratchet up to much more profound concerns about regime legitimacy. Such concerns cast doubt on the continuing validity of popular consent to the entirety of the existing governmental regime.

Keywords: Democracy, Elections, Legitimacy, Pandemic, Covid-19

Suggested Citation

Gardner, James A., Democratic Legitimacy under Conditions of Severely Depressed Voter Turnout (May 28, 2020). University at Buffalo School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2-016, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3613715

James A. Gardner (Contact Author)

University at Buffalo Law School ( email )

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Buffalo, NY 14260-1100
United States
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