Democracy In America: The Election System Is Broken

The vote of most Americans won't matter on Election Day 2004

As Americans gear up for the Nov. 2 Presidential election, they might ask themselves if their vote will really matter -- because if they don't live in one of 17 battleground states, it won't. It didn't count during the primary season, either, unless they lived in Iowa, New Hampshire, or a couple of other early-to-vote states. And if they vote in a Congressional race, their choice won't matter unless they live in just one of 35 Congressional districts. The other 400 districts have been gerrymandered to guarantee the reelection of the incumbent. The sad truth is that millions of Americans are being disenfranchised by the archaic architecture of an outmoded electoral system. It's time to fix it.

In the Federalist Paper No. 10, written in 1787, James Madison warned that "democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property....." Madison was a republican, with a small "r," who wanted "the delegation of the government....to a small number of citizens elected by the rest."

But even the elitist Madison might be surprised at just how few votes count in electing a President today. Look at the current campaign. The balkanization of America's polity into Red and Blue states, and the winner-take-all Electoral College mean that the 2.4 million Democrats in Texas and a combined 8.5 million Republicans in New York and California will have no political representation. All the electoral votes Texas casts will probably go to President Bush, and all the votes California and New York cast will probably go to John Kerry. The result -- dissenting voices go unrepresented.

Since the country is evenly split between Red and Blue states, Presidential candidates focus more of their time and money persuading a smaller number of voters in a shrinking number of competitive swing states to vote for them. In the '70s, up to 40 states were in play in Presidential years. Today, it's down to 17 or 18. A BusinessWeek analysis shows that Ohio, Florida, and Missouri will have clout utterly disproportionate to their population.

Worse, it is possible that either candidate could triumph in the popular vote and lose in the Electoral College. A Florida reprise would create a serious crisis of legitimacy in America. No wonder people feel alienated from the political system to the point where voter participation is down to 54.5% -- 139th among the world's 172 democracies.

There is an obvious solution: one person, one vote. Americans indulge the Electoral College but do not subscribe to the principles behind its creation. Madison and the Founding Fathers wanted an Electoral College to temper majority rule and to preserve the power of small agrarian and slaving-owning Southern states. Today, Americans are perfectly capable of electing their own President. Direct popular elections or proportional voting for Electoral College representatives are long overdue.

But more is needed. An astonishing 98.2% of incumbents won reelection to the House of Representatives in 2002. Thanks to gerrymandering, there is less competition and more polarization than ever. Computers allow politicians to sift through demographic data to create convoluted election districts that divide, conquer, and bury opponents. Candidates are then chosen in primaries dominated by core left-wing Democrats or right-wing Republicans. It all means less competition and more polarization. No wonder there are so few moderates left in American politics.

Gerrymandering is an electoral monster killing U.S. democracy. Redistricting should be taken out of the hands of politicians and given to nonpartisan panels that draw reasonable districts and give incumbents no special edge. Iowa has done this since 1981 and has the country's most competitive House districts. Low turnout may be fine for the pols and ideologues who dominate the process, but it isn't fine for the rest of the nation. Special interests support incumbents, and challengers must be rich to have a chance of winning.

De Tocqueville, chronicler of all things American, was never more prescient than when he characterized the collision of egos and beliefs that is a U.S. election. What this admirer of a young nation's vibrant institutions could not have predicted, however, was that one day the delicate machinery of the Founders' design would break down, creating a serious destabilizing condition. Increasingly, votes don't matter in the U.S. Fewer competitive races, increased political balkanization, more big-money politics, and the absence of a true popular vote for the President are making a mockery of America's democratic ideals. We must do better.

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