U.S. democracy needs reform


Illustration by Kristin Solis

Sean Ross

American democracy is broken.

That is not sensationalist raving in an attempt to garner page views — it is empirical fact.

Democracy comes from the Greek roots demos and kratos, which roughly translate to “rule of the common people.” The United States is a representative democracy, wherein the public exercises its will indirectly by electing representatives based on their interests to the Legislature. According to Dr. Martin Gilens of Princeton University in his book “Affluence and Influence,” the interests of everyday citizens have little if any statistically significant relation to the content of bills that get passed by Congress. The Legislative Branch has been repeatedly and verifiably shown to give more value to the interests of a small cadre of wealthy donors, known pejoratively to some as “the 1 percent.” If the will of the populace, by definition the foundation of democracy, is not being represented, then the system under which the American public is governed does not operate as it is purported to.

Yet in spite of all this, and the lowest approval ratings in U.S. history, a career in Congress continues to be one of the most stable avenues of employment in America; according to OpenSecrets.org, the rate of reelection for incumbent Congressmen has never fallen below 80 percent in the past half century, and incumbent Senators have enjoyed similar but less consistent rates of reelection since 1982. If these representatives continually fail to represent the interests of the common person, why then does the electorate continue to support them?

One of the principle reasons behind this entrenched incumbency is the stranglehold of the Democratic and Republican parties, private and self-interested entities, have over the electoral process. Their vice grip is the result of the “First Past the Post” election system. According to Duverger’s law, a theory of political science first posited by French sociologist Maurice Duverger, plurality electoral systems like First Past the Post have a strong tendency to limit competition for seats in government to two dominant parties. The more candidates that run in an election, the more difficult it is for all candidates to reach a plurality.

The result is twofold. First, smaller political organizations are strongly incentivized to coalesce into singular, monolithic parties, in order to get enough electoral support to be adequately represented in government. Secondly, established parties who already claim sizable shares of the electorate crowd out smaller third parties, starving those smaller organizations of necessary support to have any representation on a national level.

As a result, the two entrenched parties in the United States have a duopoly on the political process. It is because of this phenomena that the idea of the act of voting for any candidate outside of these two dominant parties is a wasted vote, creating a negative feedback loop of a chronic lack of support for candidates who do not enjoy the institutional advantages of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Consequently, the Parties have undue influence over who gets to run for office, and what platforms may be run on. This is due to the fact that U.S. political parties tend to internally select which candidates to run for which positions on a national level. Presidential Primary elections were not even federally mandated in the U.S. until 1968, when Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination in spite of not being on the ballot until the day of the Convention. Even to this day 29 states hold closed Primary contests, and as of January 2016, 20 states hold closed Congressional contests. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, since the two Parties are private entities, and as such do have some level of say over who can and cannot participate in their contests, be it as a candidate or a voter. The issue arises from the fact that due to the two Parties being, realistically speaking, the only viable means of reaching an elected office, the Parties effectively have control over not just who can run in and vote in their own contests, but by extension who can be a competitive candidate in any election.

The 2016 Primary elections have shown perhaps more clearly than any election in decades just how fundamentally broken the U.S.’s partisan electoral system really is. There have repeatedly been reports of tampered or purged voter rolls in multiple states, including Arizona and New York. New York in particular saw entire city blocks of voters deleted from the registry, with Brooklyn alone losing over 120,000 democratic voters. After receiving over 700 individual complaints, more than four times the number of complaints filed for the 2012 General Election according to PBS, the New York Board of Elections suspended two Board officials without pay. In spite of this, the Board certified the results of the Primary on May 6th, rejecting 91,000 affidavit ballots cast that day.

The Arizona, New York, and Massachusetts, and other contests all featured multi-hour long lines. The causes behind these lines were many and varied. Arizona and New York especially featured significantly reduced numbers at polling places, by as much as three quarters compared to 2012 in some counties, and polling places that opened later than posted. Those polling places that were open were understaffed and undersupplied. The Daily Beast reported that in New York City, some locations were delivered defective voting machines, while others received as few as half the number of machines that were needed.

Massachusetts featured former President Bill Clinton himself arriving at several polling places to make an impromptu stump speech for former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The unexpected appearance of a former president can understandably cause quite a bit of a stir; foot and road traffic surrounding the former President’s location quickly ground to a standstill. There are reports that not only was President Clinton electioneering within 150 feet of multiple polling places, which is a crime in the state of Massachusetts, but the former leader’s Secret Service detail had the entrances to some of those polling places roped off from the public; a government entity physically interposed themselves between citizens and their right to vote.

These logistical blunders seem to happen with disturbing consistency in each election, and time and again the two parties have shown little interest in doing anything to address the issue other than delivering half-hearted apologies while simultaneously rubber-stamping clearly flawed results.

The ideal solution to this entrenched problem would be to reform the electoral process from the ground up, abandoning the current plurality process for a preferential voting system. In such a system, voters rank their choice of candidates in order of preference. If a candidate receives a simple majority of votes, that candidate wins outright. If no candidate attains a majority of votes, the candidate with the least first choice votes is eliminated from the pool, and their votes are awarded to the remaining candidates based on secondary and tertiary choices. This process continues until a candidate achieves a simple majority and is declared the winner. This prevents any vote from being “wasted,” removing the long held stigma against voting for third party candidates in U.S. elections.

Assuming partisan politics is too entrenched in U.S. culture to be done away with entirely, then the two Parties must accept significant changes in order to better serve the interests of the American public. Chiefly, the Democratic and Republican Parties cannot continue to be privately interested organizations. To that end, closed contests must become a relic of the past. Too many independent voters that don’t fully align with the platforms of either monolithic Party denied the ability to decide who gets to run for office. These voters often find themselves only able to choose between, in the words of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, “a giant douche and a turd sandwich.”

Until such dramatic changes are made, democracy in the United States will continue to ignore the worsening plight of the middle and lower classes, and the gulf between the haves and have-nots will only continue to widen. Perhaps beyond repair.