By Blair Ewalt (4/2015)
Democracy is defined as a government of the people, by the people, for the people. In an ideal democracy, all common citizens have an equal influence on the agenda of the government, and those citizens take effectual action to have their opinion known (Gilens). The United States is not a true democracy; instead, according to the CIA World Factbook, it is a constitution-based federal republic with strong democratic tradition. Despite the convoluted nature of American democracy, the core values of the first-past-the-post system are supposed to be held true: the people should vote, and the majority’s views should be held true, while also protecting the rights and respecting the ideas of the minority. The U.S. contradicts itself, it preaches that the people choose its government, when in reality Presidential candidates cater to the Electoral College and can win without the popular vote as seen in the 2000 Election between Bush and Gore. The need to constantly enact voter’s right bills shows that the U.S. is consistently rushing to cover the blemishes on a system that disenfranchises minorities, who currently make up 24.8% of voters, even though according to recent demographics are the ones who will soon be the majority. Despite its attempts to be the best democracy, the United States is not an ideal democracy due to its stringent republic system, causing arduous voting standards, and a lack of effective participation on the side of the people.
The principle of “one person, one vote” is a natural democratic right. In an ideal republic democracy, all votes should demonstrate equal influence in deciding the leader. In America, voters vote for representatives opposed to taking a direct vote. These representatives comprise the Electoral College. The representatives express the will of the people into their votes and where the majority lies is what they vote for. In an ideal democracy of the states, all states would have equal voting power. In America, however, this is not the case. The electorates vote, but their vote is only part of the larger state vote. To prevent the larger, populous states from having all of the legislative power, the Electoral College ruled that all states must be given at least three electoral votes in order to protect the minority states (U.S. Electoral). This organization of electoral votes takes the votes from the larger states, and distributes them to the ones that are more miniscule in population. There lays the drawback; the outcome of this system is an inequality in individual votes. As the electorates are supposedly appointed based on population, but the number of electorates for larger states is diminished to protect the minority, mathematically a vote in a densely populated state has less worth to the Electoral College than a vote coming from a smaller state. For example, a vote from Vermont is equivalent to three votes from Texas (CGP Grey). With this structure, the United States is not an example of an ideal democracy, as all votes are not equal.
The Electoral College poses another threat to democracy. Representatives are called upon to epitomize the will of the people, however there are no repercussions for not voting in favor of the people, other than not being reelected. Although voting against the population is not a common occurrence, the possibility of a representative voting to benefit no one other than himself is possible. The lack of consequences for not voting creates a wide hole that allows for loads of corruption. There is nothing, constitutionally or federally, stopping a representative from voting for a candidate as part of a favor to a party. Only certain states actually dictate that electorates must vote by popular vote (U.S. Electoral). Putting their reputation at stake is no longer an issue when they can be appointed to a higher office position once their term as electorate is completed. One vote in contrast to 538 may seem infinitesimal, but if that one vote is a tiebreaker then that representative solely has the power to elect the leader of the free world. This was seen in the 2000 presidential election. As the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore waged, Al Gore won the popular vote, but lost the electoral vote by two votes (Trujilo). If America were an ideal democracy following the first-past-the-post structure, the popular vote would have been taken into account, giving Gore the Presidency.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 24.8% of all votes cast in the 2012 election belonged to minority voter groups. When in comparison to the demographics of the American public, only 62.6% of Americans are white. This creates a discrepancy of 12.6% in regards to the percentage of minorities compared to the percentage of minorities who actually voted (U.S. Census). What is to cause for such a large difference? The answer lies with harsh voter ID laws. Many states aligned with the GOP have discriminatory voter ID legislation in an attempt, they say, to prevent voter fraud. Unfortunate to the face of democracy, these laws play a bigger role in preventing minority voters from voting than preventing voter fraud. For example, Texas, a state that has been found in violation of the Voting Rights Act every redistricting cycle from 1970 on, has the harshest voter ID law in the nation. In an attempt to “prevent fraud,” Texas does not accept photo ID distributed by the Department of Veterans Affairs or even local colleges. Instead, if a citizen wishes to vote they must have a Texas photo ID dispersed by the Department of Public Safety, and for more than 400,000 eligible Texas voters that means taking a round trip over three hours, and it requires a birth certificate. These measures have proved non-effective to their cause, as Texas only had experienced two cases of voter fraud between 2002 and 2011.
According to a scornful opposition by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Texas’ voter ID laws may prevent more than 600,000 registered voters (4.5% of the total registered) from voting. Justice Ginsburg wrote, “a sharply disproportionate percentage of those voters are African-American or Hispanic.” Statistically, most minorities vote democratically, and severe voter ID laws are an attempt by the GOP to suppress the minority votes (Hiltzik). When James Madison warned against parties as part of an effective democracy in the Federalist Papers, he feared that self-centered factions would work against the public interest and disregard the rights of others for personal gain, and this has proved accurate (Lansford 118). Despite the numerous attempts at allowing all citizens the same right to vote, including the 15th, 19th, 23rd, 24th, and 29th amendments plus the Voting Rights Act, majority parties, like the GOP in Texas, are still able to find loopholes and discriminate against minorities who are trying to vote, annulling their democratic rights and harming the framework of American democracy.
The redistricting cycle similarly imposes a threat to the people’s democratic rights. Redistricting supports corrupt control of U.S. elections by allowing incumbent politicians to help their parties, and harming their competitors through the process of gerrymandering. Gerrymandering allows for the incumbent to, “choose their voters before the voters choose them,” by allowing for the redrawing of voting district lines in order to group together likeminded voters rather than protecting fair representation (FairVote). This was demonstrated in the 2012 congressional elections, when the Democrats won 51 percent of the House and yet were 17 seats short of a majority. Political scientists estimate that between 5 and 15 seats were lost as a consequence of gerrymandering (Ringen). Instead of voting in favor of the people, as an ideal democracy should, politicians reshape the congressional districts to benefit their own party.
In an ideal democracy citizens must express their preferences. A government by the people, for the people cannot be effective if the people do not take their chance to let their partialities be known. In the United States, roughly one third of all eligible citizens vote regularly. There are multiple factors that lead people to not actively participate in their government. In the 2008 election, 17.5% of nonvoters claimed they were too busy, 14.9% said they were injured or disabled, 13.4% stated they were not interested, 12.9% declared they did not like the candidates, and the remaining 41.3% had reasons ranging from straight refusal to an inconvenient voting location (Thompson). This evisceration of the American republic, the lack of voters caused by general apathy towards government, demonstrates an American ignorance to the privilege that is voting in a democracy. President John F. Kennedy stated in a public service announcement during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “There is one thing you can do. There is one way you can indicate your devotion to freedom. There is one way we can show how strongly we believe in our democracy… I hope every American will turn out and vote,” (Graham). Despite the value in voting in a democracy, the United States ranks 120th out of 169 countries for voter turnout in democratic countries, falling in between the Dominican Republic and Benin (Ghose). Even though America is the iconic democracy, most Americans do not bother voting or even getting educated on politics as it is an inconvenience to them. By these standards, America is not an ideal democracy, it is an inadequate one. A democratic country built by the people, for the people cannot be successful if the people are not effectively partaking.
In practice, notwithstanding the iconic nature of American democracy, the United States is not an example of an ideal democracy. The Electoral College allows for individual votes to be treated as commodities as they are split and divided between states. The College itself represents the states and not the people, and it allows the members to completely disregard voting in favor of their represented communities without consequence. Voter ID laws account for a missing 4.5%, in certain states, of minority votes. Factions work against the popular agenda, which causes voters to feel dispirited about voting in general, leading to being in the bottom third of democracy in terms of voter turnout. In terms of all people having an opportunity for their preferences to be known, America is a good democracy. Conversely when looking at equality in voting and effective participation by its citizens, America is an imperfect democracy.
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