4 Ways American Democracy Can be Fixed
A while back, I wrote this article, in which I talked about the numerous ways American democracy is severely flawed. The first step to fixing any problem is to recognize that there is a problem in the first place, but some commenters seemed to think that was also the last step. Yes, American democracy is flawed. The outcomes of elections are, at best, arbitrary and, at worst, fixed. Corporations and special interests have vastly more influence over elections than the average voter. Congress' approval ratings are at all time lows. But as much of a trainwreck as that may seem, it's not nearly time to give up. There are certainly problems, but we know plenty of ways to solve them.
#4: Reinstate the Voting Rights Act
Last article, I mentioned that the Supreme Court had struck down the portion of the Voting Rights Act which required states with a history of discrimination to receive judicial preclearance before implementing changes to their voting systems. This was a necessary measure to ensure that states weren't able to use discriminatory legislation to change the outcome of elections. Sure, if a state implemented an illegal change to an election system, a voter against whom the change discriminated could challenge the law in court. But that might take years, and by that time, the election could have come and gone. If some states couldn't be trusted to follow the Constitution (not to mention basic morality), then proposed changes to the election system would have to be approved before they came into effect.
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled judicial preclearance unconstitutional, on the grounds that there was little to no racial discrimination going on in states where preclearance was required, and so it was unfair to pick on them. Never mind that Congress had found tons of evidence of continuing racial discrimination as of 2006, or that laws had been struck down by the Voting Rights Act in the run up to the 2012 election, or that many states passed laws restricting voter rights mere hours after the Supreme Court said they could. The fact that an African-American president was elected not once, but twice proves that racism in America no longer exists.
Congressman Steve King (R-IA) on undocumented immigrants, demonstrating that racism has no impact of who is elected.
But if the Supreme Court ruled part of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, what power does Congress have to pass it again? It's true that Congress couldn't pass the law in the exact same way. The Supreme Court believes that racism doesn't exist, so Congress can't make only states with a history of racism subject to judicial preclearance. Instead, Congress must make all states subject to judicial preclearance. This way, there's no need to determine what states have a history of discrimination, and there are no states that can make discriminatory changes to their voting procedures without going through a judge first. The law would be perfectly Constitutional. Unfortunately, altering laws takes an act of Congress, and as of late, that's about as likely to happen as an act of God. Before we can fix the Voting Rights Act, we'll have to fix Congress.
#3: End Supermajority Requirements
In a democracy, the majority rules. Yes, minorities have certain rights even if the majority doesn't want them to. Discrimination against minorities doesn't become okay just because most people like it. But democracy is government by the people. Decisions in a democracy aren't made by a small minority appointed by chance or blood right or anything else, but by a majority or plurality of citizens. That is, unless you live in America. In the Senate, a single Senator can hold up a bill indefinitely so long as he continues to speak. A minority of Senators, 41%, can kill a bill or halt a judicial Presidential nomination permanently, even if the majority wants it to pass.
Supermajority requirements like these are not only blatantly undemocratic, they're a surefire way to prevent Congress from doing anything productive at all. It's hard enough to get just half of Congressman to come to an agreement that something needs to be done. Getting 60% to agree is nearly impossible. That is why, due to Republicans' record use of the filibuster on Presidential nominations, many government positions go unfilled. Luckily, there's been some progress on this issue. Democrats in the Senate recently took the so-called "nuclear option", ending supermajority requirements to break filibusters of non-judicial nominees.
All Senate procedural changes are named after types of explosions. Let's just pray they don't go Supernova.
Ending supermajority requirements to break filibusters of non-judicial nominees is progress, but it's not enough. Minorities in Congress can still hold up nominations for judges, or block legislation that an overwhelming majority of Americans support. This isn't just a problem on the federal level either. Some state congresses, like California's, have harsh supermajority requirements to do something as routine as passing a budget. There are a number of supermajority requirements that have to be abolished, but those are hardly the only barriers to a functioning legislature.
#2: Implement Proportional Representation
Congress right now is dominated by two parties, and has been for hundreds of years. This is because, in American elections, you can only vote for one candidate, and the candidate that receives the greatest number of votes wins. If you are only familiar with American politics, those may have seemed like extremely obvious statements, but that is not how elections work in most of the rest of the developed world. American elections are plurality elections, which means that the one candidate with the plurality of the vote wins. This will tend to reinforce a two party system. Two party systems aren't very democratic, as Americans have more than two views that they might want to express.
This is unfortunate, because Americans should only be expressing one political view: mine.
Most countries have plurality election systems, which allow for multiple parties. There are a number of plurality systems, such as Mixed-Member Proportional Representation, Party-List Proportional Representation, and Single Transferrable Voting, but they all have the characteristic that the composition of parties in the legislature matches the composition of votes candidates from those parties received. This solves two important problems with American elections. First, it prevents a situation in which more people vote for the minority party than the majority party, as happened in 2012. Second, because Americans have more than two opinions, it means that Congress will likely have more than two parties.
The Israeli Knesset has 13 parties, indicating that Israel cannot contain any more than 8 Jews.
Lack of political choice is an old problem in American politics, but it is worse now than it is usually. A record-breaking number of Americans are not registered as belonging to any party, and American's approval ratings of Congress and the parties within it are barely in the double digits. Unfortunately, proportional representation is not often discussed in American politics, and it is pretty obvious why: incumbent politicians, almost all members of a major political party, would face a serious threat from other parties if they were viable options. This is why any fix to the political system has to start with one important change:
#1: Be an Educated Voter
A poll recently asked Americans whether they thought the budget deficit was increasing, decreasing, or staying the same. Barely 1 in 8 gave the correct answer. In 2010, another poll asked Americans whether the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, often referred to as the Stimulus Package, created jobs. Only 1 in 3 gave the correct answer. Half of Republicans believe that ACORN stole the 2012 election, even though it did not exist then. The majority of Americans dislike the Affordable Care Act but like all its parts. You can poll about almost any policy or almost any candidate, and the data point to the same conclusion: Americans do not know what they are talking about when it comes to politics.
This kind of ignorance allows voters to be easily manipulated by their existing political allegiances. They may support what their party wants them to, because they do not have the information necessary to make their own decisions. This is even true to the point where people will vote for candidates that want to repeal policies the voters like. Republicans are okay with the components of the Affordable Care Act, but vote for candidates that have tried to overturn it dozens of times.
@BenCasselman on the 2014 Midterm Elections.
This becomes a problem if you are trying to change the broken political system, because most of the changes suggested here do not benefit politicians. Proportional Representation would dismantle a two-party system has kept most politicians from both parties incumbent. Reinstating the Voting Rights Act would reduce the effectiveness of election tactics relying on voter suppression. By and large, you are not going to hear about these issues from politicians themselves. So do your research, and write your representatives, because they aren't going to change things unless their jobs depend on it.
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