Monday, June 9, 2008

An Inequitable Democracy

I’ve been working on several essays this week, none of which are complete. So, instead of posting a half-assed essay, I have decided to review the non-democratic system we will use in five months to select our President, House of Representatives, and Senate. There are two specific issues I want to consider: the Electoral College, and the method used to create congressional districts.

I don’t like it when people complain that “my vote doesn’t count,” or that voting, “won’t make a difference.” In local elections, our votes are counted equally. At the ballot box, my vote matters as much as my neighbors and my boss’. Saying that a single vote doesn’t count implies to me that individual people do not matter. From a broad and sanitized point of view, that might be correct, but I find it extremely depressing.

The Electoral College – the system used to select the U.S. President – throws the equality I have outlined above is thrown out the window. In all states except for Maine and Nebraska (which I will exclude from the current discussion), the candidate who wins the majority of votes in the state wins the entirety of that state’s electoral votes. Under this system, the state one lives in determines how much their vote counts. Here is a list (curtsey of Wikipedia), which documents this disparity.

The fact is that a vote for president in Wyoming (where votes count the most) counts four times as much as a vote in Texas (where they count the least). Voter equality in the U.S. Representatives is a bit better. Montana has the worst ratio of 957,861 people per representative, while Wyoming has the best, 522,830 per representative.

The U.S. Senate is, however, the most twisted of all. Created to reflect the Federalist side government, the U.S. Senate is supposed to represent each individual state’s interests. Every state is treated equally, with two senators coming from each. Citizens of Wyoming get one Senator for every 261,415 people. California, with over a tenth of the nation’s population and a gross state product of $1.8 trillion, has one Senator for every 18,276,608 people. When voting for the Senate, citizens of Wyoming have nearly seventy times the influence of those who reside in California.

Nebraska and Maine assign two electoral votes to the winner of the state’s popular vote (one for each senator), and one to the winner in each congressional district. Should all states adopt this system? Perhaps, but this has its own problems, due to the way congressional districts tend to be drawn.

In the U.S., gerrymandering is the rule. In most states, the political parties in power draw the boundaries of congressional districts with the aid of computer modeling to give their party the most possible districts.

You can get a good taste for how strange some districts are here.

Districts are drawn so that specific voting blocs – African-Americans, Hispanics, farmers, hippie communes, etc. – are placed together to create “safe” districts, where historical voting patters heavily favor specific parties. It doesn’t always work, but it usually does. Over the last few elections, over 85% of all districts were won by at least 10%, and over 70% by at least 20%. So while the House of Representatives comes closest to the idea that all votes should be equal, this equity is undone by the cynical (at best), or malignant (at worst) side of our politicians.

Despite these inequalities, we still consider ourselves democratic. By the measurement that matters, I believe that we are, deeply, a democratic nation. We are just not an equitable democracy. At most every level of society, the ideal is a rule of the majority, with minority rights embedded in the system of a fairly applied law. The ideal, of course, is rarely realized. Yet is an astonishing feat that, with the one exception of the Civil War, power has been passed on without violence (or much protest) to (mostly) non-related people since the late 18th century. By comparison to the history of governments around the world, this is truly remarkable.

Yet we should still strive for a more equitable union, and a great place to start would be with voter disparities that disadvantage most everyone except the residents of Wyoming, and there aren’t that many of them anyways.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Per usual, I feel that you make some very valid and important points; while our system of representation may have made sense (I stress MAY) for the America of 230 years ago, an infant nation, these practices have become increasingly undemocratic since that time.
However, while I agree that some reform in the areas that you suggest would be an important step in advancing the democratic process in "one of the most democratic nations in the world", I believe that there many other concerns about the political process that disenfranchise voters to a greater extent, and furthermore, contribute significantly to the voter apathy that you touch on in the beginning of your essay. I think that such pessimistic comments are not entirely derived from a feeling of inability to make a difference in terms of the value of a single vote amongst the many cast, but additionally, these comments reflect the jaded attitude that many Americans take toward the political process in terms of the choices that are open to them and the efficacy of those politicians once they are in office.
A general feeling pervades much of the American populace, namely the feeling that regardless of who is elected into office, very little of import will change in terms of the functioning of that government or the way that its policies affect their daily life. There are severe limitations on the economic and polical options that are given consideration in public discussion as being within the realm of thinkability; a great deal of presuppositions are taken for granted within political debate, presuppositions that are by no means necessary or unalterable. Furthermore, the reason for these unnecessary limits is not that because of the view held by the general public, and to the extent that it is, it is because the public has been conditioned not to consider alternatives.
This fact about our political culture is directly related to the fact that candidates are often distinguishable from each other only in ideologically minor ways (and I believe that this is true to an increasing degree). Also, this is directly linked to the fact that any candidate that represents a truly unique opinion and espouses policies of real change and a move away from the status quo is painted as extremist and radically out of touch with reality and the American public. Thus, the American people are saddled with the political hegemony of "two" parties (which are ultimately more similar than they are different). The status quo is maintained by political subsidies to these two dominant parties and ultimately, the control of acceptable public discourse concerning political and economic policy.