As we integrate the results of the mid-term elections, it’s a good time to ponder what really goes on with our election process. There’s a lot that many of us don’t know about how it works.
It’s clear that the results of this election indicate that voters want a break from the whiplash the country has been through since 2016 when Trump took a proverbial ax to the existing systems that have kept our democracy in place. Although we are tempted to take a rest from the chaos, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that all is well. There is still much to do if ever we hope to reform our systems without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Democracy cannot exist unless citizens believe in the system. The key to that belief is that elections are valid. Election denial, by definition, is the refusal to accept the results of an election. Many factors contribute to why people deny election results. Believing in conspiracy theories, believing and acting upon falsehoods, outside foreign interference, and citizen misinformation are just a few contributing factors. These beliefs have led some of us to believe that it's not worth voting because our votes don’t matter.
People turn towards refusing to accept election results and conspiracy theories because they don’t trust the political system and those who game it. In this post, I will try to bring a bit of clarity to voting systems, their pitfalls and advantages. By assessing where we are, we can more intelligently think about where we want to end up. I think this is supremely relevant to ponder during our ‘resting phase’ so that once we’re re-energized, we can begin making intelligent, rather than reactive, changes.
How Election Deniers and Fake News Threatens Democracy
Let me begin with a clear declaration: our votes DO matter. Democracy cannot function if citizens are unable to – or won’t – vote. I think most of us will agree that our democratic system is far from perfect. In the last 40 years, many systems in the US have been in decline. Prior to that, American’s enjoyed a large, vibrant and prosperous middle-class. Our infrastructure was the most modern in the world. Our democracy, though regularly and sometimes dramatically tested, was strong and for the most part, our economy was thriving. But systems respond to cycles; they are born, they grow and thrive. Once they peak, they get increasingly complex because technology demands it. This is true in both democracy and autocracy. When any system begins to decline, it is fertile for gaming that system. When you see this, it signals the institution is heading in the direction of change and transformation.
Currently our systems are heading for increasingly rapid and significant change. When in this phase, they are ripe for opportunists. The concentration of wealth in the top 2% of the population has led to a significant imbalance of power, unfair tax laws, a decreasing middle class, and the disintegration of our physical, social and systemic infrastructures. Domestically, decline has increasingly led to loss of civility and a sense that ‘the wheels are coming of the wagon.’ On the world stage, it leads to the decrease of American global influence.
Add fake news, religious nationalism, conspiracy theories, social media, political lies, and foreign interference to the mix and it doesn’t take long before citizens lose both power and trust. Without a reliable standard of truth, we cannot have democracy. Democracy by its nature relies on an agreed-upon set of standards that tie to facts.
Those who stormed the Capitol during the insurrection claimed they believed Trump’s ‘big lie’ as truth. Their trust in domestic systems had failed. They didn’t realize they were following their emotions; they believed that they were ‘saving’ democracy. Most were not acting on facts. Facts had been skewed and manufactured by intentional disinformation and fake news systems (such as Fox News) and misinformation delivered through social media and other social forums. All of these contributed to undermining the very democracy they thought they were saving.
The Electoral College
Like most developed countries, the US relies upon voting as the agreed upon method for choosing who makes decisions for the country. It is the collective voice of the people. Those who are motivated by self-interest, wealth and power know how to game systems to their advantage; so when we talk about elections, and election reforms that strengthen and ensure democracy, it is wise to look closely and proceed carefully.
The US electoral system has been the topic of much debate and discussion. The Electoral College is an institution established by the Constitution, and consists of a body of electors who are authorized to elect a President and Vice President. It was created by the Founding Fathers to protect the interests of less populated states as part of a compromise, and to get those states to accept the Constitution. It was presented to the people as a way to avoid “tyranny of the majority,” when in actuality it protected the leadership of the wealthy and more educated. It is still a main cornerstone of conservative thought, along with state’s rights.
State’s rights are the other mainstay of conservativism that plays into the equation. It is built on the belief that the US is a collection of individual states whose rights are preeminent over both federal and individual rights. This ideology is demonstrated today in the current Supreme Court judges and in Libertarianism. It the motivating philosophy of the Republication party and brings us to the crux of the issues around elections. The idea that each state (meaning ‘each state’s educated and wealthy) should make its own decisions about everything, including who should be able to vote, serves as a significant counterforce to the democratic and collective voice of the people.
Since the Founding Father’s era, our population, communication and systems have grown into a much more diverse democracy with far more interests being proposed and acted upon. In terms of the voting process, 200+ years has led to the dilution of power and increasing control by the elite.
The Need for Change in the Electoral College
Let’s take a look at how this plays out in the Electoral College, which has been criticized for being outdated and undemocratic.
The number of electors in each state is determined by adding together the number of senators and representatives from each state; at present, there are 538 electors. One criticism is that it's not representative of the population. For example, California has 55 electoral votes while Wyoming has 3 electoral votes. This means that one person in California has 2/55th of the vote while one person in Wyoming has 1/3rd of a vote.
Another criticism is that it can lead to problems with representation because it doesn't take all people (people without property, women, Native Americans, racial minorities) into account. For example, if an election ends up being close, then whichever candidate wins will have less than 50% approval from the public - which is not representative at all of the voting populace.
A third criticism is that it can lead to voter suppression because people who live in rural areas are cut off from (prior to, and sometimes without access to, the internet) as well as unbiased information and encounter logistical obstacles to voting. Therefore, they are less likely to vote.
The Top Modern Electoral Systems
The Electoral College is a system created to ensure that the candidate with the most votes from each state would be the winner. It gives more power to less populated states, which leads to an unfair distribution of voting power. It also gives more power to rural areas, which means that their decisions are heard louder than cities or urban areas. It favors the incumbents and makes it difficult for others to win an election. Even more importantly, who spends the most money on advertising has a huge advantage. It permits the flow of ‘dark money’ into campaign financing and gerrymandering (re-districting) as a way of legally gaming the system. Dark money campaign financing furthers the Faustian deals that candidates must make with their financers. This environment is a result of Citizens United, which gives corporations ‘humanhood’ and enables the flow of money intended to influence election results -- all under the auspices of freedom of speech.
What is Electoral Reform?
Electoral reform is essentially a process of choosing a better way to elect officials. Re-writing voting laws is a major part of the equation, but for our purpose here, reform can be seen simply as a way to ensure that every vote counts and that voters are not disenfranchised by the current system. One of the major roadblocks that needs to go is gerrymandering, the purpose of which is to benefit one party over the other. Another key to electoral reform (as well as all social reform) is the Supreme Court; but that is a subject for another blog post.
The Galvanizing Force of Gerrymandering
Gerrymandering is the redrawing of electoral districts to favor a certain political party. It has been a contentious issue for decades, but it's recently come under increased scrutiny. Gerrymandering is done in many ways, some more effective than others. One of the most common methods is called ‘packing,’ which involves drawing up oddly shaped electoral district lines that cram as many members of one party into one district as possible to reduce their voting power in other districts. The results of this practice stood out clearly in this year’s mid-terms, as explained by Heather Cox Richardson in her newsletter:
“The importance of that partisan gerrymandering—and the importance of today’s Supreme Court in upholding that gerrymandering—showed up yesterday in the cases of four states in which Republican lawmakers simply refused to change maps that state courts had determined were illegal. In Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Ohio, heavily gerrymandered maps stayed in place despite state court decisions that they were unconstitutional.
Those four states make up almost 10% of the seats in the House of Representatives. According to congressional redistricting specialist David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, those illegal maps were likely to hand five to seven seats to the Republicans that they would not have won without them.”
Although Richardson does not mention other states, I am aware of Florida, New York, Tennessee and several other states in which similar situations exist. This has turned us into a country where a faction of the population rules the entire country. Although gerrymandering exists throughout all voting systems, the solution is simple. Use algorithm run by a non-partisan bureaucracy to decide what the congressional districts will be.
Gerrymandering is a key reform, but not the only one worth implementing. There are three systems of voting other than the Electoral College system that I’ll mention here, each of which has merit when considering electoral solutions.
Proportional Representation (PR)
PR is a system of voting where the number of seats in the legislative body is proportional to the number of votes cast. It is currently used by a majority of countries. The chief executive is chosen directly from the legislative body. It assures a more inclusive slate of candidates and embodies a more equitable representation of the general population. In Canada, PR was studied extensively by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who proceeded to introduce it as an electoral reform package.
Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)
RCV is a voting system that allows voters to rank their candidates according to personal preference. It is not a new concept. It was first developed in the 1870s and has been used in other countries, such as Australia and Ireland for many years. Ranked choice works by voters ranking their choices of more than one candidate in order of preference. It increases the possibility of voting from a larger pool of voters and was used in Alaska in the current midterms. It reduces the possibility of the need for a run-off vote, which is expensive and prolongs a final decision.
Single Transferable Vote (STV) or ‘Preferential Voting’
The STV system is a possible consideration for those who have no ‘say’ for choosing legislators such as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and a few others. It is a voting system that has been around for over a century and has been adopted by many countries. It is also known as ‘preferential voting’ because the candidates come only from particular under-represented groups. It is similar to PR with the key difference being the structure. It’s an election within an election. Voters choose from a general slate just as they do currently in other voting systems, but in addition, they have the option to vote for a candidate that must be from a specific under-represented group.
When and Where Do We Start?
Reform comes out of chaos. But is it prudent to begin reformation in the midst of chaos? I think that there are steps that can, and indeed should, be taken. We can look to other democracies in terms of how they function and borrow some of their ideas.
Most functioning democracies limit campaign time and finances. Scandinavia, for example, has one of the highest voter turnouts (80%), caps on time spent campaigning, and limitations on how much money can be spent in the process, effectively avoiding expensive media saturation. They require fairness over the airwaves, whereas the US in 1987 abolished the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine which required holders of broadcast licensure to present controversial issues of public importance and do it in a manner that fairly reflects differing viewpoints. Canada also maintains a set time limit for campaigns. According to new regulations introduced by Elections Canada, federal campaigns must be between thirty-six and fifty days. These are only two examples, but there are many more from which we can learn.
Reform solutions can also include legally going after sources of misinformation with steep fines and/or incarceration for obstructing justice. Restoring checks and balances, restoring trust, the Fairness Doctrine; election of – and term limits upon – the Supreme Court; and reforms that disallow bi-partisan manipulation of the Constitution, are all viable alternatives.
America is in a fight for its ideological life. Starting four decades ago there has been a steady decline of American society which has accelerated since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. There has been an erosion of democratic norms. We’re facing an escalating climate emergency that will result in mass extinction of life on the planet unless given primary action globally. There is corrosive racial and gender inequality dividing us and preventing many of our citizens from reaching their full potential. A crackdown on the right to vote, gerrymandering, rampant pay inequality leading to rule by an elite minority and leading to an authoritarian society, all must become a priority in any reformation.