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5 Ways American Democracy is Being Subverted
By: aviel | Part of a Column: Here's Where You're Wrong
Tags: Politics, America

Here's Where You're Wrong
5 Ways American Democracy is Being Subverted

One Man, One Vote. That phrase has been the fundamental principle of American democracy since our country's earliest days in 1964. It means that everyone is represented equally; no matter where we live or who we are, everybody's vote counts the same. This founding principle is essential to a functioning democracy, and like with all of our founding principles, we've been ignoring equal representation since the beginning. Here are just a few of the ways in which the outcomes of American elections aren't necessarily subject to the actual vote count:

#5: Electoral College Votes Don't Match the Population

The United States of America uses a Byzantine system to elect presidents called the electoral college. This article won't detail how the electoral college works in its entirety, because that monumental task would take a whole 5 minute YouTube video, but it will give enough of an overview to point out a few flaws. In a presidential election, the candidate with the greatest number of votes from the electoral college wins. In the electoral college, each state is assigned a certain number of votes, and the state (usually) gives all of its votes to the candidate for whom the greatest number of the citizens in the state voted.

The number of votes each state has in the electoral college is equal to the number of senators that state has in the Senate added to the number of representatives it has in the House of Representatives. In theory, the number of representatives a state has is proportional to its population. In practice though, that's not the case. Since the Reapportionment Act of 1929, the House of Representatives is limited to 435 representatives, who are divided among the states in proportion to their population. However, each state must have at least one representative, which means that (combined with the two senators each state has) each state must have at least 3 electoral college votes. Washington D.C. has had three electoral college votes since the 23rd amendment passed in 1961, even though it does not have representation in congress.

Three votes out of a total 538 is often more than a state actually deserves based on its population, and that means that electoral votes have to come from states with higher populations. Wyoming is the least populous state, and it has 3 electoral college votes. Wyoming's votes in the electoral college account for about 0.56% of the total number of electoral college votes but, its population accounts for only 0.18% of the total US population. This means that a voter in Wyoming has three times more voting power than the average American, and more than 3.5 times the voting power of someone in the most populous state; California. To match that influence, I and 2.56 of my friends would have to vote a different way.

In the Senate, the situation is even worse. Because every state has two Senators, Wyoming and California each have equal representation in the Senate. This means that a voter in Wyoming has 68 times more say than a California voter on who gets elected to the Senate.

1 Man, 68 Votes: the Senate's idea of democracy.

This problem is so extreme that, in theory, in an election between two candidates, a candidate with as little as 22% of the popular vote could win the presidential election if he got it from people in the right states. But a situation in which the electoral college causes a failure in democracy doesn't need to be so extreme. In fact, the electoral college has caused a less popular candidate to win the presidential race four god damn times. Our presidential elections have a 7% failure rate. But being a democracy 93% of the time is still a pretty good track record, right? If democracy were a test, we'd get an A? No: unfortunately, there are other problems with American elections.

#4: Gerrymandering

Each state has a number of congressional districts, and every district elects one member to the House of Representatives. The number of districts within each state is roughly proportional to the state's population (though as the previous item pointed out, not so precisely in proportion to the population that it doesn't cause problems). The number of districts each state has is determined mathematically, but the shape of those districts is determined by the states. Usually the states allow politicians to decide what the districts look like, and as we all know, politicians are honest people who would never try to alter the outcome of an election in an immoral way.

A face you can trust.

Districts can be drawn in a way such that they don't represent the people living within those districts. For example, let's say that we have a state with four districts. 50% of the voters in the state vote Democratic and 50% of the voters vote Republican. Ideally, the districts would be drawn such that two districts would elect Democratic representatives and two districts would elect Republican representatives. But let's say that the Democratic voters are concentrated in one area, and let's say that the state legislature (who draws the districts) doesn't want the Democrats to win seats in congress. They can draw a district that surrounds half of the Democratic voters, and then split the remaining half of the Democratic voters into each other district.

If they do this, one district will always vote for a Democratic representative, but three districts never will, because only one third of the voters in those districts are Democrats. This practice of drawing districts in a deliberately non-representative way is called gerrymandering, and if politicians can do it, it can't be that hard: you can try it for yourself. Just as the systematic problems in the electoral college have caused problems with presidential elections, so has gerrymandering caused problems in congressional elections. And unlike electoral college misrepresentation, which doesn't necessarily favor either party, gerrymandering is deliberately partisan.

#3: The House of Representatives is on a One Party System

In the 2012 election, 51% of voters who voted for the major parties in the House of Representatives voted for Democrats, and 49% of those voters voted for Republicans. After those elections, the House of Representatives was made up of 54% Republicans and 46% Democrats. I didn't write those numbers backwards: even though 1.4 million more people voted for Democrats in the House of Representatives than voted for Republicans, the Republicans hold a strong majority of seats in the House.

Still, equating 46% with 51% is better math than congress usually manages.

At this point, though, we're used to failed elections. So what's the problem? The problem is that, because of the state of congressional districts, only Republicans can win the House of Representatives. Due to a combination of geographic concentrations and deliberate partisan gerrymandering, there are a greater number of Republican districts than Democratic districts, even though there are more Democratic voters than Republican votes. The number of swing districts (i.e. districts where the number of voters for either party is so close that elections can go either way) is in decline, and with the current arrangement of districts, even if Democrats won every single swing district, they would still constitute a minority in the House of Representatives.

The House of Representatives now exists in a one party system, and can therefore pursue whatever pointless or harmful agenda it desires. If it wants to vote to repeal Obamacare for the 37th time, it can do that. If it wants to deny a scientific theory supported by 97% of the most prolific experts in the relevant field, it can feel free to do that. As representatives don't have to worry about elections, they don't have to worry about the will of the people or their well-being. And this isn't the last way in Congress fails to act democratically.

#2: The Senate Can't Do Anything

The Manchin-Toomey amendment was a bill that would have required background checks for gun purchases. Over 90% of Americans support a policy of expanding background checks for all gun purchases. Despite this overwhelming support, only 54 of 100 senators voted for the Machin-Toomey amendment. You may notice that this is still a majority of senators. In a democratic system, a policy supported by 90% of the people and 54% of the representatives should pass, but the Machin-Toomey amendment failed. It needed 60 votes, a supermajority, to pass.

In the Senate, it takes 60 votes to stop a filibuster. Before a bill is voted on in the senate, senators have the opportunity to speak and express their views on the bill. They can speak for as long as they want, holding up the process of voting on the bill for as long as they want. In other words, a single person can obstruct the democratic process, even if the majority of people don't want him too. But since 1975, no person is even required to actually get up and speak. If 41 senators say they want to filibuster, a filibuster is automatically enacted. In other words, a minority of senators can stop a bill that the majority of senators support.

Congress' increasing use of the filibuster has made the last congress the least productive congress ever. That isn't an exaggeration. In the 1940s, the 80th congress was so ineffective it was called the "Do Nothing" congress, and it still managed to pass three times more bills than the 112th congress. Congress is like King Joffrey: not only is it unfair, it's uselessly unfair.

"We've had undemocratic congresses, and we've had do-nothing congresses, but I don't know if we've ever been cursed with an undemocratic do-nothing congress!" -- Tyrion Lannister (Game of Thrones, Season 2 Episode 6)

But let's say that, despite the inability of congress to get anything done, you still care that the composition of congress matches the will of the voters. Sure, congress isn't going to be doing anything, but you want the people you voted for not doing those things. Well you're out of luck because, as of June 2013, states have a whole new way to influence election outcomes: racism!

#1: The Voting Rights Act no Longer Functions

On June 25th, 2013, the Supreme Court issued a ruling on the case Shelby County v. Holder. Shelby County held that it was being unfairly targeted by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, specifically the section that forced Shelby County (along with a handful of other counties and states) to get approval from the US Department of Justice for any changes made to its election system. This requirement was originally put in place to bring an end to discriminatory policies that were being used on an institutional level to keep minorities from voting. The Attorney General argued that Shelby County should be given the benefit of the doubt once it demonstrates that it is no longer racist. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, sided with Shelby County.

The Supreme Court decision means that counties and states with a history of racism in the format of their elections won't be required to seek pre-approval from the Justice Department before making changes to their election system. Considering that the US has now elected an African American president two whole times, one might think such racism a thing in the past. Unfortunately, it isn't. Proposed election changes were struck down several times as recently as 2012 by the Voting Rights Act. In fact, Texas approved a tough new Voter-ID law the same day this court ruling came out. There has been less discrimination in elections because of the Voting Rights Act.

"Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work ... is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet." -- Ruth Badass Ginsburg (Source)

These failures in democracy paint a grim picture, but they don't indicate that it's time to give up. They don't mean that you shouldn't bother voting. They mean the opposite of that. If politicians or courts are trying to suppress your say in the democratic process, don't assist them by voluntarily remaining silent. Make their attempts at suppression more difficult by ensuring that, no matter what obstacles exist, you submit your vote and make your voice heard. Otherwise elections will continue to be dictated by the elected and not the electorate.
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