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Thursday, December 29, 2005

What If There Was An Election And Nobody Came?

In the last article I raised the question whether US citizens have become disenchanted with our electoral/political system. If they are, what is the evidence? If citizen participation in their democracy is dropping, at what point is the system's moral legitimacy called into question? 90% 80%? 70%? Dare we go lower?

I suspect those who belong to the two major parties here in the US as well as those who can't articulate their dissatisfaction with our electoral/political systems suffer from a form of myopia. When it comes to elections they see only that the glass is half full: vote totals. They ignore the half that's empty: non-participation. The press is no better.

This myopia leads to elections being described as "landslides" when, for instance, Reagan in 1980 only received a mere 26% approval from the voting age population (VAP). Another aspect of this myopia is when the press artificially contrived the simplistic blue/red state dichotomy. Others think they bring a more sophisticated view by introducing shades of purple and pink. In reality, depending on the election, only about 40-50% of the voting age population (VAP)is voting for one of the major parties and 50-60% is not bothering to vote at all. So what great insights can the press bring us when they ignore 50-60% of the population?

Let's look at the numbers.

Here are some VAP voting statistics for the US from:

This site does not yet cover the last 2 US elections. But since they do cover the previous 30 years they are, none the less, revealing. The numbers reflect the percentage of the total VAP that voted in each federal election between 1970 and 2000. If you've only looked at the glass being half full, you're in for a shock:

1970 46.6%
1972 55.2%
1974 38.2%
1976 53.5%
1978 37.2%
1980 52.6%
1982 39.8%
1984 53.1%
1986 36.4%
1988 50.1%
1990 36.5%
1992 55.1%
1994 38.8%
1996 49.1%
1998 34.7%
2000 46.6%

45.2% is the 30 YEAR AVERAGE VAP participation for ALL congressional races.

38.5% is the 30 year average VAP turnout just for OFF-YEAR congressional years.

There is a clear bump in the numbers during a presidential election year and rates. 51.9% is the average VAP turnout for congressional races in presidential years.

1972 55.2%
1976 53.5%
1980 52.6%
1984 53.1%
1988 50.1%
1992 55.2%
1996 47.2%
2000 49.3%

The average VAP turnout between 1972 and 2000 for just presidential races is 52%.

So if the average congressional race turnout is 45.2%... what does that say about our system? It means that some 54.8% of the VAP is not voting. According to the some 4.7 million felons have been disenfranchised and while sizeable that makes up only about 2-3% of the VAP. The real explanation lies elsewhere.

But it also means that those elected to the Congress and the Senate do NOT have the approval of the majority of the US citizens. They are there at the behest of, and beholden to, a minority of US citizens. Worst, since Congress and the Senate are often split down the middle... the ruling party may only have the approval of 23% of the VAP and the president only about 26% approval!

Which brings us back to my original questions. Have US citizens become disenchanted with our electoral/political system. If they are, what is the evidence? If citizen participation in their democracy is dropping, at what point is the system's moral legitimacy called into question? 90% 80%? 70%? Dare we go lower?

In a democracy the opinion of every citizens should count for something. Yet in the US the two Parties, the press, the system itself, are all ignoring between 48-62% of the population.

So what are those non-voters telling us?


Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Insidious Currents Of Anti-Democratic Government.

The Electoral College might be seen as a curious feature of the US Constitution but it's in keeping with other Constitutional vote weighting/dilution formulas such as the Senate and the amendment process. All are designed to magnify the voice of small states in a manner not consistent with their actual populations. In the case of the EC, the formula provides for 100 wildcard votes out of 535 which are distributed equally, 2 for each state. Where tiny Wyoming would get 1 EC vote if House apportionment were used, it now gets 3 EC votes. The net effect is Wyoming citizen's vote for president weighs about 3.5X that of a California citizen's vote... and whenever there are vote weighting/dilution schemes... there is the possibility for a minority candidate to win an election.

But the effects of such vote weighting/dilution formulas are unpredictable. In Election 2000 this formula gave each citizen's vote in Bush's Florida lead 1013X the weight in deciding the outcome of a citizen's vote in Gore's national lead. Here are the official Federal Election Commission results for Election 2000:

GORE: 50,999,897 (48.38%)
BUSH: 50,456,002 (47.87%)

Gore won a 543,895 vote plurality in the national vote.

The Florida vote was:

BUSH: 2,912,790
GORE: 2,912,253

Bush won Florida by 537 votes.

Now the US does NOT have a popular vote and Gore did NOT win a majority. But if the US had a run-off system, no doubt most of Nader's 2,882,955 votes (2.74%) would have gone to Gore.

The effects of anti-democratic vote weighting/dilution formulas are both unpredictable and insidious. According to an article in Mother Jones Clarence Thomas was confirmed by Senators who represented less than 50% of the US population. Thomas became a deciding vote in Gore vs. Bush which freed the anti-democratic EC formula to take over "electing" Bush. While the nation clearly preferred a liberal/progressive agenda, it instead got a radical Right administration which pushed for irresponsible tax cuts, son of Star Wars, etc. Bush was then free to abuse the powers of his office to insure the GOP captured the Senate.

US and world history were changed not though a democratic process of self-government... but though the machinations of an anti-democratic system.

The world's only superpower is out of the hands of its own population and Americans just turn a blind eye. The real danger is the People have become so alienated from our system they are dropping out.


Tuesday, December 27, 2005

How Democratic Is The US Constitution?

"How Democratic is the American Constitution" is the title of a book by Robert Dahl, a distinguished political science professor from Yale. To quote the book liner: "Refusing to accept the American Constitution as sacred text, Dahl challenges us all to think critically about the origins of our political system and to consider the opportunities for creating a more democratic society".

This task is made more difficult because the principles underlying
American "democracy" are rather schizophrenic. On the state level the People are sovereign. On the federal level we have a system of dual sovereignty... where the states and the People have suffrage and are both represented in Washington. Given our origins from sovereign colonies and the hardball politics of the Constitutional Convention, dual sovereignty was probably the only alternative at the time. Yet did the Framers' endless system of checks and balances set the primitive politics of 1787 in cement? Is the structure of the Constitution so rigid it's virtually reform-proof? Does the concept of dual suffrage make the US Constitution un- or anti-democratic?

As I wrote in a previous article, we're raised to understand why the Constitution is as it is. We were never encouraged to critique it or ask what desirable principles were compromised away at the Constitutional Convention. We are also raised to think how states and citizens within those states are represented. We're not to think about how any given CITIZEN is represented. Yet if we do, we uncover a hidden political realm that calls into question the official justifications for our system... thus its moral legitimacy.

As Hamilton wrote in Federalist 22 sophistry may require otherwise, but for all intents and purposes those sovereign states are merely the PEOPLE who live within. In actual practice the Constitution's recognition of state sovereignty is manifest as a series of anti-democratic vote weighing/dilution formulas that ultimately grant some CITIZENS a bigger vote than others based upon nothing else but their choice of state residence. These formulas underlie the Senate, the Electoral College, and the amendment process. In 1964 the Supreme Court ruled such formulas were illegal on all other levels of government. Was this the nation's first Affirmative Action plan?

The anti-democratic aspects of such schemes are mathematically verifiable. Currently about 15% of the population gets 50% of the Senate seats and it may soon be 10%. A Wyoming citizen's vote for president weighs about 3.5X that of a California citizen's vote. In 1900 the population ratio between the biggest and smallest states, California and Wyoming, was 16 to 1. Using 2005 US Census estimates it's now 70.9 to 1. This means any Wyoming citizen's vote for the Senate weighs about 70.9X that of any California citizen's vote. Here are the numbers. It shows a bumpy but clear demographic trend that is making the US Senate, therefore the Constitution itself, more and more anti-democratic.

2005... 70.945 : 1
2000... 77.019 : 1
1990... 65.610 : 1
1980... 50.402 : 1
1970... 60.078 : 1
1960... 47.618 : 1
1950... 36.437 : 1
1940... 27.547 : 1
1930... 25.169 : 1
1920... 17.627 : 1
1910... 16.288 : 1
1900... 16.049 : 1

When it comes to the amendment process about 3.8% of the population in the 12 smallest states can theoretically block any amendment. Some might believe that this insures that there must be vast unanimity before any amendment is passed. Not true. There is NOTHING in the Constitution to insure this. In fact the 3/4 smallest states that can ratify any amendment now consist of less that 40% of the population.

Then there's Election 2000. The anti-democratic EC formula gave each citizen's vote in Bush's Florida lead 1013X the weight in deciding the outcome of any citizen's vote in Gore's national lead. More on this in a future post.

In my last article I listed the elements that I believed insured a government is morally legitimate. I started with these two:

* Legislators represent people, not trees or acres.
* Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.

The above was taken directly from a 1964 US Supreme Court voting rights case "REYNOLDS v. SIMS" which can be found here:

"Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests. As long as ours is a representative form of government, and our legislatures are those instruments of government elected directly by and directly representative of the people, the right to elect legislators in a free and unimpaired fashion is a bedrock of our political system."

It goes on to make the moral case for one person, one vote... where all votes weigh the same. Unfortunately this moral standard does not, can not under current Constitution, apply to the federal government itself. Yet unless it does, we'll have more Election 2000s where the anti-democratic EC allows the minority to legally seize control of the government against the will of the majority.

(revised 3-25)


Monday, December 26, 2005

What Constitutes Morally Legitimate Government?

What makes a system of governance morally legitimate?

Here in the US, we're brought up not to think of such things. We're brought up to understand why our system is as it is, never to critique it. The Framers of the Constitution got it right back in 1787... end of story. If everyone believed that to be true, we'd still have slavery and women would be deprived of the vote.

I believe that each generation has a moral obligation to critique our system to determine how it can be improved. As a nation we should be grateful for the moral courage of past generations to fight for reforms. But is our generation failing this task?

What questions should we be asking? What standards should be used to measure moral legitimacy?

I subscribe to the simple test put forth in the Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

What's most relevant to this discussion is this phrase: "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."

But just how is that consent measured? What principles should a morally legitimate government embody?

This is tailored for the US political system. I believe the following democratic principles are essential:

* Legislators represent people, not trees or acres.
* Legislators are elected by
voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.
* One person, one vote.
* All votes are of equal weight.
* Minorities should have their interests protected though constitutional protections... NOT by granting them a bigger vote.
* There should be a strong culture of civic responsibility.
* Majority rules but sizeable minorities have institutional tools to obstruct the majority.
* Citizens have the right to vote their conscience and receive some representation in government.
* No citizen can be deprived of their vote.
* Citizens have the right to vote their conscience and NOT worry about the so-called "spoiler" effect.
* Electoral/political systems must accurately measure and reflect the will of the People.
* Electoral/political systems must encourage maximum citizen participation in elections.
* No candidate should win an election with less than 50% of the vote.
* Amending our Constitution should require a high bar, but not one so high that it makes the Constitution virtually reform-proof.

I also believe:

* Freedom of the press as an individual right is insufficient. The media must serve as the marketplace of ideas presenting all political perspectives not just the corporate/two-party viewpoints.
* The media must be free to serve as a counterweight to government.
* Money corrupts the democratic process and its influence should be limited.

I'll try to comment on each point in follow-up articles.


It's A Fresh Wind That Blows Against The Empire.

Greetings and welcome to the Reinvent America Blog.

My user name is ulTRAX. I've been a fixture in many political forums for years. Chances are we've met and whether you're a Democrat or on the far Right, most likely we've butted heads.

Since the anti-war movement of the 60's, I've been a political contrarian. I was a PoliSci/Sociology major as an undergrad and received a degree in Social Theory. While I've generally been to the Left of the narrow spectrum of US politics, I have also cherry-picked ideas from political traditions ranging from Libertarianism to Socialism. I would now describe myself as a Progressive... not to be confused with repackaged Liberal Democrats who as of late latched on to that same description.

Whether I've debated Democrats or Right-wingers my posts pulled no punches. But I've found that in a charged and often rancorous forum setting it's often not possible to fully explain one's basic values and approach to politics let alone develop ideas. Web debates are a flash in the pan... there's no lasting "end product". So one goal in creating this blog is to get off the treadmill, to slow down, and create a more structured and comprehensive presentation of what principles underlie my views. A second goal is to apply these principles to the ambitious intellectual exercise of reinventing America. Where would I, as a Progressive, want to take this nation in 50 years? Where would you? Why are changes desirable? What are the obstacles to change?

I hope you find these readings provocative and I look forward to your constructive and thoughtful comments!