With less than 3 weeks to go until US polling day, it’s fair to say that this presidential election has been particularly awful. But here are 10 reasons why every national election in America is remarkably undemocratic.
1. Gerrymandering for the House of Representatives
Every 10 years, the US has a National Census and, sensibly enough, in most states the districts for House elections are redrawn to reflect population changes. Here in the UK (whose democracy of course is not perfect either) a similar process is going on right now, with independent boundary commissions drawing up new constituencies. But in most US states, this ‘redistricting’ for House (and local) elections may be placed in partisan hands. This allows parties to design their state’s districts in such a way as to maximise their chances at the next election and keep seats safe. As The Economist put it in 2002, “In a normal democracy, voters choose their representatives. In America, it is rapidly becoming the other way around.” Most recently, in 2010 Republicans pulled off “the most audacious political heist of modern times”, deliberately putting resources into winning control of redistricting powers and then making great use of political data to create optimal electoral maps. Since then, House Republicans have had a majority and been able to block most of the President’s agenda, and it is currently generally considered “impossible for Democrats to win the House”.
2. Puerto Rico
There are 3.5 million people living in Puerto Rico (and over 0.5 million more in other unincorporated territories of the US). People born there are US citizens, pay many federal taxes, can be conscripted and live under federal law. But residents can’t vote for President, have no Senators and their sole Representative cannot vote on the floor of the House. It is bigger than 21 states (and DC), and has democratically and formally asked for its current territorial status to be ended and to be admitted as a state.
Similarly, the 700,000 strong population of Washington, D.C. receive no proper representation in Congress. Although more people live here than in Wyoming or Vermont (and nearly as many as Alaska), its special status in place of statehood means that its residents are subject to taxation without representation.
4. The electoral college
The President is not the candidate who receives the most votes in a popular election. Instead they are elected indirectly through 538 electors (with 55 from California, down to 3 each from the smallest states and D.C.). This is crazy for several reasons. One is simply that in many states the electors needn’t even follow the judgement of the people – a ‘faithless elector‘ could for example ignore a popular instruction to vote for Donald Trump. Second is that the distribution of electors favours smaller states (see 5.) – where a person’s vote in a small state can be worth over 3 times that of one from a larger state. And third is the ‘winner takes all’ rule in most states. In theory, California (for example) could choose to apportion its 55 electors in proportion to the popular vote, but the Democrat-run legislature of California of course would never abandon a system that gives the party 55/55 electors, despite the fact that this means an additional vote – Republican or Democrat – in California makes no difference at all to the presidential election. With modern capabilities (and the removal of 18th century concerns about marrying democracy and slavery) the lack of one-person, one-vote seems absurd.
5. 2 Senators per state
California has the same population as the 22 smallest states combined, but of course has only 2 senators compared to the combined 44 of those smallest states. A majority of votes in the most powerful legislative chamber in the world could potentially represent only 18% of the US population (also excluding Puerto Rico etc.!), and only 11% are needed to filibuster reform. (Source) Of course this is how state representation was intended to be, but is it optimal in the 21st century? In the EU Council, for comparison, both the number of states and their combined population are taken into account. And if the Senate is explicitly unrepresentative, doesn’t that at least add to the case for making sure the House and Presidential elections actually do value every vote equally?
There are many problems with the system of presidential primaries (/caucuses), whereby candidates vie to win their party’s nomination. Perhaps the worst is the well-known bias the current system gives to the states that go first, which can make or break candidates. States like Iowa and New Hampshire therefore receive disproportionate attention and so a minority of usually richer, whiter voters get far more say in the choice of candidates than those in larger and more diverse states. As one Senator put it, “too many people in too many states have no voice in the election of our major party nominees. For them, the nominations are over before they have begun.” Iowans, on the other hand, have been famously successful at getting presidential candidates to buy their votes by committing to corn subsidies.
7. Felony disenfranchisement
10% of Florida’s adult population and 20% of its black Americans are barred from voting due to felony convictions (often drug-related). For comparison, this swingiest of swing states gave Bush the presidency in 2000 by a (not recounted) margin of 537 votes (although Gore won the most votes nationally – see 4.). Nationally, over 6 million Americans are disenfranchised for this reason, and over half of these have completed their sentence.
8. Reporting results while people are still voting
In the UK, polls close at the same time nationwide and no exit polls are allowed to be reported before then. In the US, the former isn’t very practical, but for me it seems inequitable that any state should be reporting results or exit polls until every state has finished voting. Yet this is what happens. Even worse, the result of the election can be called even before the polls have closed in the West, depressing turnout.
9. First past the post and a 2-party state
First past the post (the single candidate with the most votes wins) is a terrible, terrible voting system. As CGP Grey explains, it tends to lead, quite rationally, to a 2-party system – though the degree of 2-party dominance in the US is unusual. I won’t rehash the arguments. But what seems particularly odd to me is that in the UK, the most common (if flawed) argument against fairer voting systems is that they lead to weaker, coalition governments. Yet the US often has divided government and strong checks and balances: so would be the disadvantage to having a multi-party democracy (or indeed democracy without parties – as the Founding Fathers wanted)? If there were to be a direct vote for president (see 4.), and in Senate elections, why not use a system like the Alternative Vote or Supplementary Vote where third party votes aren’t wasted or damaging? And in House elections, why not choose Representatives proportionally – while removing the problem of gerrymandering (see 1.) entirely – by having multi-member districts (perhaps state-wide) and proportional representation?
According to a leak from 2013, members of Congress are expected by their parties to spend 4 hours a day making calls to potential donors, and another 1 hour a day in ‘strategic outreach’. That’s more time than they’re expected to spend doing their (very well paid) public duties. Why? Because if they don’t then the other side will outspend them and so win the election. This arms race helps explain how over $6 billion was spent on the 2012 US election – and of course there are substantive elections every 2 years. This gives lobbyists much more direct power, as the NRA can threaten to stop funding a Congressperson’s reelection campaign or Exxon or the Koch brothers can promise to give millions to a Senator’s campaign. And it favours incumbents as “somebody that is already in Congress has a great deal more to sell.” But, slightly more subtly, it also means that politicians must either be rich, spend a great deal of their time talking to the richest, or – most likely – both. In a country of high inequality, the voices of the richest – as well as those of corporate interests – are therefore further amplified by the deficiencies of campaign finance rules. Alarm bells should certainly ring when a former President says that America is now “just an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or elected president. And the same thing applies to governors, and U.S. Senators and congress members. [We’ve] seen a subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors…”
Every 1 of these 10 reasons seems shocking to me, but that all of them (and more) co-exist is a travesty in the world’s most powerful country. And yet, what is perhaps worse is that most of these problems are well-known and have been for decades, but no-one has been able to fix them. Is it possible that the system is not just undemocratic but – perhaps for these same reasons – now unreformable?
This is not to say that anyone should vote for a loose cannon like Trump, and the result of the election must be accepted with the utmost respect. But America has enough problems that a functional democracy is sorely needed. What’s more, in the 21st century it should be demonstrating both the principles and merits of democracy to the people of China, Russia and poorer countries across the world. At the moment it is failing, badly.