Five Ways “Representative Democracy” is Failing Us

Five Ways “Representative Democracy” is Failing Us March 1, 2016

campaign buttonsIt’s a nice sentiment to think that voting matters and that our systems of government are of, by and for the people.

But it’s not, and here are some examples of how.

Delegates/Electoral College: In both parties, both for the party nomination process and in the general election, there are intermediary steps that prevent direct representative democracy (popular vote wins, period) from determining winners. In addition to concentrating power among a handful of party officials, some of these delegates’ votes at the party conventions aren’t binding (more on this in a minute).

In the general election, we don’t have delegates; we have the electoral college. The difference is minute, save for the fact that the college isn’t made up of party officials (necessarily). But like the nomination process, they aren’t legally bound to vote like the popular vote goes in their state, and even if they do, the percentages can be a less-than-exact with regard to the breakdown of popular vote. On top of this, there are an even number of members of the electoral college. And yes, that means that it possible for there to be a tie.

So why does this matter? For one, a tie in the college means congress gets to break the tie. In that case, the House of Representatives chooses the President and the Senate picks the V.P. If you’re familiar with the Senate, you know there are 100 Senators (yes, also an even number). This means that if there’s another tie – you guessed it – the sitting Vice President (who is the tie-breaking vote in the Senate) gets to pick the new Vice President. What happens if they happen to be running for re-election? I’m pretty sure their heads explode like the guy in the movie, “Scanners.”

In addition, the employment of the electoral college means that one candidate can win the popular vote and still not be elected President. Think this is a possibility only in theory? Think back to the 2000 election when Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election. And if you recall, the dispute about the vote in Florida actually sent this election to the Supreme Court to settle. Once again, sitting government officials decided the outcome.


Superdelegates: For Democrats, some delegates sound like they have some kind of special powers. In a sense they actually do. Superdelegates are made up of party insiders, elected officials and others (many of whom we’ll never know or understand who they are and why they’re “super”), and they can vote however they want. Out of a total of approximately 4,763 total delegates available, 794 or so of those are superdelegates. It sounds weird to estimate these, given that we’re knee-deep in the nomination process, but there are so many conflicting numbers out there that it’s hard to confirm for sure what the numbers are this time.

And yes, by “this time,” I mean that the count changes all the time. Back in the 80s, superdelegates made up about 14 percent of the total available delegates in the party; now they are about one-fifth of the total. And bear in mind that since it only takes half-plus-one to win, that means that if all of the superdelegates line up behind one candidate, they could hand her or him 40 percent of what they need to win without a single state having their say.

In the G.O.P., there are about 2,340 total delegates available. Of those, there are approximately (there’s that word again) three superdelegates per state. When asked recently how they are allocated, the communications director for the Republican Party said that they are required vote how their states voted. How that works if the vote is split is unclear; maybe they go with the top vote-earner, but who knows?

Non-binding Caucuses: As if the difference between caucuses and primaries wasn’t weird enough, there are some states that have something called “non-binding caucuses.” This means that just because a state votes a certain way doesn’t mean the delegates have to vote that way. An example of this is Colorado. Say the caucus-goers go for Trump and the party representatives don’t want to do that, technically they don’t have to. Also the very concept of caucuses causes those states to have less of a candidate presence than those states holding primaries. Rather, candidates tend to work inside the party systems to wrangle the backing they need, often ignoring the public all together.

Inconsistent State Rules: If you’re still with me and haven’t yet been blinded by the tweety birds flying around your head, each state can determine the guidelines for how the delegates for their state are allocated. States have varying thresholds for how much of a share of the vote a candidate has to get to earn any delegates. In some cases, all delegates not allocated because of candidates not meeting those limits go to the candidate with the most votes. So if there are five candidates, one gets 33 percent of the vote, another gets 22 percent and three get 15 percent each, and if the threshold is 20 percent, the one winning one-third of the votes ends up with 78 percent of the delegates. In other states, it’s a winner-take-all model, so in that case the one winning one-third of the popular vote gets all of the delegates from that state.

This isn’t to mention the delegate process in caucus states. Some use secret balloting while others move to corners of the room or raise hands depending on who they support. The more public processes tends to lead to party leaders strong-arming caucus-goers to get them to vote how they want. And again, each state has different processes for weeding out less popular candidates and awarding those that were with the underdog.

Then of course, there’s the infamous non-binding caucus (see above).

Citizens United: There’s a ton that could be said about this case on constitutional law that was settled by the Supreme Court in 2010, but essentially the ruling determined that corporations could be recognized as citizens just like you and me. As such, they are protected under the First Amendment’s right to free speech, under which political campaign spending was deemed to fall. This subverted all campaign finance spending limits intended to control the influence of corporations or other organizations in the political process. So on top of all of the above, for-profit and nonprofit groups now can flood elections with as much money as they want to try to make the votes go their way.

I don’t lay all of this out to dissuade readers from getting involved in the political process. On the contrary, representative democracy can – and clearly will – be chipped away at as long as the general public either is indifferent to the adverse effects or we are baffled by the layers of obfuscation put in place to keep average voters from knowing what to challenge or why.

And yet we’re not stupid. There’s a sense that the system is broken, because it is. The media decry our lack of engagement in the political process, and the political party leaders sigh at the apparent collective indifference to their pleas for higher voter turnout. But to what end? Are we merely pushing a boulder a bit up the mountain, only to have it roll back over us when the most critical moments come along?

That said, ignorance is no excuse, and once we know better, there is an opportunity to do better. There is a reason that political “outsiders” are having unprecedented success from both ends of the ideological spectrum. People have had enough, and it has the two-party system handlers in a panic. Maybe now is the moment we’ve needed to get their attention. Maybe they will finally consider the corrupt and distorted nature of the systems they’ve put in place and protected, supposedly in our best interests.

The people are speaking; it’s time for the major party stakeholders to listen.

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