Column: The Myth of American Democracy

A democracy is a political system in which citizens of a town, city, state, or nation choose their leaders according to which candidates get the most votes. The vote by each citizen carries the same weight in determining which candidate wins the contest. As the November elections approach, we are being bombarded with political advertising that insists that our democracy is at risk. We hear alternative claims that any outcome that does not elect a politician that has declared himself or herself the inevitable victor in this contest must be fraudulent.  This is merely another way of saying that our democracy will collapse if the vote count does not support the ambitions of the self-declared winners. The problem with both of these positions is that the United States is not and never has been a democracy.

When the Constitution was first adopted by the former British colonies, representation in the Congress was to be determined by the population of each state. Free men and women were counted as whole people. Because of prior arguments by slave-holding states that their financial obligations in support of a central, aka Federal, government should not consider slaves as people, the population of slaves in these slave-holding states was considered to be only three-fifths of the actual count in determining the number of representatives these states could send to the national Congress. Women and slaves could not vote. Each state imposed its own restrictions on which white men could vote in a transparent effort to maintain control in the hands of the people who had supported the American revolution and were in charge at the end of the war.

Women were allowed to vote in 1920. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution were intended to give former slaves the right to vote, but what followed has been more than 150 years of voter disqualification, suppression, and intimidation of these former slaves and their descendants. Techniques for eliminating the impact of votes by targeted groups has evolved into a science. When an incumbent finds his (or her) district is getting populated by people who are unlikely to vote for him, he can shift the borders of his district to minimize the number of unsupportive voters in that district, a practice referred to as gerrymandering. Gerrymandering, an entirely legal maneuver to avoid losing one’s seat in Congress, was named after one of its earliest practitioners, Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who redrew a district in Massachusetts in a shape reminiscent of a salamander, so that a member of his political party would be assured re-election.

Much more questionably legal practices are still utilized in many states to help get the “right” person elected. Voting districts likely to support candidates frowned upon by the office holders in a state will be supplied with broken or insufficient voting machines. The wait to vote at these polling stations may last hours.  Laws may be passed to deprive these underserved voters of water, chairs or bathroom facilities. Votes for incumbents may be spared the scrutiny and disqualification involved in the review of ballots for non-incumbents. Identification requirements may be burdensome.  Voters may be misinformed that they are qualified to vote under state rules and then accused of voter fraud after they have voted.

Even if all of these barriers to a true democracy were eliminated, the structure of the U.S. Senate and the persistent reliance on the “Electoral College” to choose the President of the United States would stand in the way of a truly representative government.

In 2016, the candidate for the Presidency who got the most votes in the general election was declared the loser.  This was not the first time this happened, and it is unlikely to be the last time. An archaic system of allocating elector votes according to a formula devised more than two centuries ago was responsible for this outcome. This Electoral College system for electing a President was adopted at a time when states with relatively small populations viewed themselves as somewhat sovereign entities demanding power in determining the laws of the not very united states of America. States with small populations had their citizens represented by a relatively large contingent of politicians and states with large populations were underrepresented. This leveling of political power was one way to get the states to agree to a Constitution that gave considerable authority to a central government.

The idea of sovereign, autonomous states was supposed to have been discarded with the Civil War. Each citizen, regardless of race, creed, color, or location, was supposed to have an equal say in the selection of members of Congress, but the rules established in the Constitution made that impossible.

The entire state of North Dakota has fewer citizens than the borough of Brooklyn, New York.  Nonetheless the state of North Dakota has two Senators in Congress deciding the fate of laws that will apply to all of the citizens of the United States, including those of New York State, which also has only two Senators in Congress.  At the last census in 2008, North Dakota had just over 641,000 residents; New York State had just under 19.5 million residents. This meant that each Senator from North Dakota represented about 320,000 people and each Senator from New York State represented about 10 million people.  This makes each voter in North Dakota much more powerful than each individual voter in New York State in determining what laws get passed by the Senate.

In the Electoral College the inequality of representation is even starker. States are awarded one vote for each of its Senators and one vote for each of its representatives in the House of Representatives. North Dakota has one vote for each of its two Senators and one for its only representative in the House. Each of its voters in the Electoral College represents about 210,000 citizens. New York State gets one vote for each of its Senators and 29 votes for its representatives in the House.  This means that each voter in the Electoral College from New York represents about 630,000 citizens. New York State citizens have only one-third the voting impact of citizens in North Dakota in choosing the President. 

These inequities and more subtle devices for subverting democracy could be corrected. An Amendment to the Constitution would suffice. Unfortunately, the powers that be insist on defending the current undemocratic system precisely because it got them the power they hold.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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