We are not a democracy

One person, one vote is not how it works; we can do better

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American government is not democratic, considering the Electoral College, the disproportionate number of citizens represented by senators in large versus small states, and the impact on the House of Representatives of state legislature gerrymandering.

The hypocrisy of this would be bad enough, considering the amount of bleating we get from our allegedly elected and certainly well-financed representatives about democracy, freedom and American exceptionalism. Why do so many of them wear little American flag pins in their lapels, like North Koreans and images of Kim Jong-il? Do they imagine that otherwise we won't realize they are Americans?

But the whole thing gets worse when Americans realize that their representatives simply are not doing their jobs in Washington. The lack of rapid action on gun violence is one example. Many of these people leave Washington Thursday nights and come back Tuesday mornings for three days of work a week. Some spend five to six hours a day on the phone or in campaign meetings begging for money to get reelected. They rack up debts to campaign contributors in terms of favors owed and interests -- other than ours -- to be represented.

Almost without exception, the Electoral College gives all of a state's votes to the presidential candidate who wins the majority of the state's popular vote. The only thing that would be less democratic would be to award electoral votes on the basis of congressional districts. More and more of them are being severely gerrymandered to favor one political party or the other. That takes them further and further away from reflecting one-person, one-vote democracy when it comes to presidential elections.

In some ways, the concept of states themselves is becoming ridiculous given the reality of the country's demographics. Try New York City. Is it not, in fact, a combination of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut? Washington, D.C. really includes the District of Columbia, Southern Maryland and Northern Virginia. Memphis, Tenn., is in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. Pittsburgh, for that matter, encompasses Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio and the West Virginia panhandle.

Why not reorganize the country on the basis of urban clusters in which people have common interests and get rid of the gross overrepresentation of laughably small, underpopulated states like Delaware and Wyoming in the Electoral College and Congress? States like Rhode Island and Idaho have two senators, the same as California, Texas and Pennsylvania.

A country that cannot modernize itself to accurately reflect reality may collapse more rapidly than it otherwise would. Natural selection does occur in empires and civilizations. Look at Greece, Rome, Egypt, the Ottomans, Russia, England, Austria-Hungary.

The gridlock, paralysis and corruption we see in Washington today in the face of our serious, growing problems seems a clear signal of the need for drastic change. Gerrymandering of the House of Representatives may be the worst example of America's slow but sure walk away from democratic rule. Both parties do it when they control a state legislature. But at present the Republicans put more money and effort into trying to win House seats through gerrymandering than the Democrats do.

The Republican State Leadership Committee is working from a $30 million plan to control redistricting to the GOP's advantage. It has been effective. Even though Democratic candidates won 1.4 million more votes cast for House seats in 2012, Republicans ended up with a 234-201 majority in the House. They are now employing that advantage to block White House and Senate action on the budget.

Ten states show a significant imbalance between the popular vote and the composition of their congressional delegations, according to analysis by Sam Wang of Princeton University. Six of these -- Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia -- favor the Republicans. Four -- Arizona, Illinois, Texas and Wisconsin -- favor the Democrats. None of the 10 reflects the democratic will of its citizens.

Californians at the ballot box took redistricting out of the hands of their legislature, creating the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. Surprise, surprise, the composition of California's congressional delegation now reflects closely the state's popular vote in the 2012 elections. Democrats won with 62 percent of the vote and California's congressional delegation, including its two senators, comprises 38 Democrats and 15 Republicans.

So what do we do? Some favor a constitutional convention. I would be wary of such a gathering, given the likely over-representation of well-organized, rich, older, extreme factions. On the other hand, some of these questions are big enough in terms of the future of the country to call for a constitutional convention.

Better than that, for the moment, would be if other states followed the lead of California and took redistricting out of the hands of venal legislators in favor of commissions that would, with full transparency, draw electoral maps in nonpartisan fashion. In the meantime, please don't tell me that we have a democracy.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1976).


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