I can’t remember a less thankful Thanksgiving than last week’s. It’s hard to be grateful for ordinary well-being when the government’s executive branch is undergoing a hostile takeover. And it’s a hostile takeover by a gang of crooks, incompetents, bigots and cranks, otherwise known as the President-elect, his cabinet and his senior staff.
So it’s as good a time as any to review the rotten state of American democracy. We can even consider how we might fix it. (I say “we” because “they” live off the rot.)
British journalist Mehdi Hasan summarizes several ways in which our political system sucks:
#1: We don’t have a national election. We have 51 separate elections. That’s how a woman who gets 65.0 million votes (and counting) can lose to a monster who gets 62.6 million. Those 51 contests result in 538 people being elected to the Electoral College. Those 538 people will select the new President on December 19.
#2: Our political campaigns take months and months and cost more per capita than in any other country. Most of the money goes to round-the-clock TV advertisements in key states (see #1). Those of who live in the rest of the country are taken for granted.
#3: Relatively few of us vote. The last time 60% of the voting age population voted was in 1968. Most developed countries do much better.
#4: Rather than making it easier to vote, states run by Republicans are making it more difficult. The goal of this “voter suppression” is to stop as many Democrats as possible, especially African Americans, from voting.
#5: Local politicians, not independent commissions, fix the boundaries of Congressional districts once every ten years. They put as many voters of the other party as possible in bizarrely-shaped districts while creating dependable majorities for their own party in the other districts. This process of “gerrymandering” – which the Republicans did so well in 2010 – helps explain why members of the House of Representatives hardly ever lose their jobs (97% were reelected this year).
Mr. Hasan concludes:
Is this really what we define as democracy? Or is this, to quote the president-elect, a “rigged” system? Rigged not against Trump and the Republicans but against the poor, against ethnic minorities, against Democrats but, above all else, against basic democratic norms and principles and pretty simple notions of equality and fairness?
This isn’t a time for denial or deflection. The American political system is broken. Far from being the “world’s greatest democracy”, … representative democracy in the United States seems further hollowed out with every election cycle.
In fact, Mr. Hasan left out one of the worst failures of American politics. Some votes count more than others. We give lip service to the principle of One Person, One Vote, but the Constitution gives precedence to states with smaller populations. Small states are over-represented in the U.S. Senate, which determines who will be on the Supreme Court, and in the Electoral College, which determines who will be President.
Throw in the effects of geography and gerrymandering, and even the House of Representatives fails to meet the One Person, One Vote standard. This year, the Republicans beat the Democrats in House races by 61.5 million to 58.3 million. Ideally, that should translate into a slim 223-212 majority for the Republicans, not the 241-194 majority the Republicans will actually have.
Not only do the residents of small states have excessive representation in the Federal government, but so do white voters. That’s because the smallest states have fewer minorities. From The Progressive:
The states with the fewest minorities (Idaho, New Hampshire, Nebraska, [etc.]) represent a total electoral college block of thirty-seven electoral votes. Based on their actual population, however, they should only be getting twenty electoral college votes….
Meanwhile, if we add up the ten states with the largest minority populations (California, Texas, Florida, [etc.]), we find that, based on population, they should be getting 276 electoral votes. In reality, though, they only get 240…
The problem is that not only do states vary greatly on who has access to the ballot box but, assuming you have successfully cleared the bureaucratic hurdles to get a voter ID card, waited in line for several hours, and cleared all the other voter suppression tactics and actually voted in your state, the [Federal] system itself is tilted in favor of certain states and certain voters.
So, borrowing a phrase from one or two Russian revolutionaries, what is to be done? How can we make America more democratic and, as a result, more Democratic? It sure won’t be easy. All right wing ideologies, from the 18th century on, have had a common theme. They fear that their power is at risk, so they fight like hell to maintain their position in the hierarchy. But let’s think about how we might reform the system anyway.
A few years ago, the political scientist Norman Ornstein proposed a Voting Rights Act for the 21st century (that was soon after the Republicans on the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act for the 20th century). He recommended, among other things:
- The Federal government would create a standardized, personalized ballot that everyone would use to vote for President and members of Congress.
- The Social Security Administration would issue a modern photo ID to everyone with a Social Security number (which these days means every U.S. citizen). If you had one of these ID’s and were 18 or older, you would be eligible to vote.
- The government would allow weekend voting at any local polling place, with early voting the week before [why not have polling stations in every U.S. post office, for example?].
Mr. Ornstein didn’t mention the problem of making sure votes are properly counted, but that would be an obvious improvement too. For example, David Dill, a professor of computer science, founded the Verified Voting Foundation. He explains here how easy it would be to interfere with one of our elections. Professor Dill proposes, therefore, that:
We need to audit computers by manually examining randomly selected paper ballots and comparing the results to machine results. Audits require a voter-verified paper ballot, which the voter inspects to confirm that his or her selections have been correctly and indelibly recorded… Auditing methods have recently been devised that are much more efficient than those used in any state. It is important that audits be performed on every contest in every election, so that citizens do not have to request manual recounts to feel confident about election results. With high-quality audits, it is very unlikely that election fraud will go undetected whether perpetrated by another country or a political party.
There is no reason we can’t implement these measures before the 2020 elections. As a nation, we need to recognize the urgency of the task, to overcome the political and organizational obstacles that have impeded progress.
Finally, there are three other reforms that hardly need mentioning.
The Electoral College was meant to protect small states and slave-owning states back in the 18th century. It still has one valid purpose: the members of the Electoral College can stop a truly unqualified or dangerous person from becoming President. (Small states get more than enough protection from the U.S. Senate and the Supreme Court.) If, however, the Electoral College allows T—p to become President, there is no reason to think it will ever fulfill its remaining purpose. That means we need to either amend the Constitution to get rid of the Electoral College or make the damn thing superfluous (the latter option is the goal of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which I wrote about earlier this month).
A second obvious reform is to institute a less partisan way of designing Congressional districts, that is, to limit the effect of gerrymandering. Yesterday, three Federal judges ordered North Carolina to redraw its legislative districts and hold a special, more representative election next year. Non-partisan commissions can do a better job at drawing district lines than politicians and their cronies. So can software, as described here, for example.
Of course, the last obvious change we need to make is campaign finance reform. Rich people and corporations should not exert exorbitant influence in a democracy. As the saying goes, it’s supposed to be One Person, One Vote, not One Dollar, One Vote. Now all we have to do is convince, replace, out-vote or out-maneuver the right-wing reactionaries who stand in our way.