Monday, June 03, 2013


What's Wrong with our Democracy?

Being retired and not having much of anything important to do, I spend a lot of time watching television.  I'm fond of three PBS stations here in Woodland Hills: Channels 28, 50, and 58.  I do not subscribe to a cable service but use a roof antenna to receive the signals from television transmitters in the area.  Each channel has four "sub-channels" and from each station I have the choice of four different programs.  Sometimes the same program will be aired at different times on different sub-channels.

Not long ago I watched an inspirational program about citizenship.  In particular, it was about immigrants who become citizens and what they are taught about our government.  New citizens are taught that ours is a representative government, a republic of elected representatives and an elected president, and that they, as voting citizens, can choose who represents them and who is the national leader.

After a while this idealistic picture turns sour.  At present we have in our national legislature two bodies, a House of Representatives and a Senate and neither one of them represents the majority of voters at the last election.  In the election last year, more voters chose Democrats than Republicans.  The person elected as President was a Democrat.  A majority of the Representatives elected were Republicans.  The Senate is not  designed to represent the entire population but rather the voters in each separate State, regardless of the State's population.  Thus, as few as ten percent of the voters can elect a majority of the Senators.

The problem with the Senate is fixed in our constitution and can't be changed except by a unanimous vote of all fifty States.  The problem with the House is that the boundaries of the various election districts have been adjusted by various State legislatures so that a majority of the districts are designed to favor Republicans.  This arrangement can be done by creating Republican-leaning districts with a bare majority of Republican voters (e.g., 55 percent Republican) and Democratic districts with great majorities of Democratic voters (e.g., 85 to 90 percent Democratic).  This process is called "gerrymandering," after a politician who introduced the practice.

It is almost an accident that the President was chosen by a majority of the voters, because that's not the way the system works or is designed to work.  The President is not chosen by a majority of the voters.  The President is chosen by electors.  Each State chooses at least three electors (e.g., Vermont, Montana, Alaska) or as many as 55 (California) depending on the total number of Representatives and Senators from that State.  We have had Presidents that were not the choice of the majority of voters.  A recent one was George W. Bush.  His predecessor, Bill Clinton, was also not chosen by a majority of voters in 1992, although he out-polled each of his two rivals, George H. W. Bush and H. Ross Perot.

The founding fathers - the name given to the rather elite group that met in convention an 1787 and drew up the federal constitution - wanted to create a system of government in which the king (e.g., George III or Henry VIII) would be replaced by an elected official.  They'd had more than a century of experience with elected legislatures and they knew that the voting public often made really bad choices.  They didn't want to try to have Presidents elected by direct popular vote.  Instead they set up a system of indirect election in which each State would select electors, one for each Senator an each Representative from the State.  The States could (and still can) choose electors any way they want.  The electors in each State then meet some time between the election in November and a date in December to choose candidates for President and Vice President.  The electoral votes for these candidates are then sent to the House (in the case of Presidential votes) and to the Senate (in the case of Vice-Presidential votes).  The respective chambers of the federal legislature then chose the President and the Vice President from the candidates selected by the various electoral colleges.  If one candidate had a majority of the electoral votes, he or she would be declared the winner and the new President or Vice-President.  If not, the winner would be selected in the respective chamber by a voting method that gave each State equal weight.  In the Senate, each State had two Senators, so the matter there would be settled by a majority of the Senators.  In the House, each State's delegation would caucus and choose a candidate.  The State's delegation would cast the one vote for that State.

Sounds pretty complicated, doesn't it?  That's how far the founding fathers would go to avoid a simple direct election of the President.  They didn't intend to establish a democracy.  They intended to establish a republic. They didn't care that the republic might not represent the will of the majority of the citizens.  They wanted something that would work as well as the government of Henry VIII but without the absolute power of Henry himself, who was given occasionally to having a political opponent beheaded.

At any rate, the electoral college system never worked as intended except in the election of 1828, when no candidate had a majority of votes for President.  The House chose Andrew Jackson to be the President.  In other cases (except one) the electoral college produced a simple majority vote for one candidate.  In 1876 some States sent two sets of electoral votes to Washington.  Rather than simply voting on who should be President the House chose an "impartial" commission to decide which set of votes was legitimate.  Among the undisputed votes, the Democrat Bill Tilden was one vote away from a majority of the electoral votes.  However, the impartial commission set about to elect the Republican Hayes and to that end chose only the Hayes votes among the disputed electoral votes.

I have seen copies of typical tests given to new citizens.  None of them involve disputed elections or gerrymandering.  None of them involved the power of large amounts of money to influence the election of a Representative or Senator.  Even so, our new citizens are better informed than most voters.  Gerrymandering works because voters tend to stick with their party of choice regardless of the policies of that party.  If voters were really thoughtful and independent, the shape of district lines wouldn't matter.

So, to answer the question of the title of this post, the thing that's wrong is that the American People pay too little attention to politics and care too little about national policies.  They have a congressman that they like in spite of some of the things that he or she does and they keep electing the congressman.  Michelle Bachman sounds like a complete idiot to me, but she must be very popular among the people in the district she represents.  Perhaps she keeps them entertained.
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