Thursday, November 24, 2016

The political system of the USA

So, about that recent election. I am not an American, so I don't actually have a horse in that race except to the degree that everybody will be impacted by what one of the most influential nations on the planet decides to do.

I don't really want to discuss party politics on this blog either, so what I will focus on is simply what I consider to be certain systematic issues with how elections work in the USA. The point is, as far as I can tell the system is built so that it systematically favours conservatives, whether intentionally or not.

A major concept here is Gerrymandering.

In case that isn't clear what Gerrymandering is, imagine a political system in which the seats in parliament are given to people representing individual electoral districts as opposed to nation-wide party lists. So if you win the plurality of the votes in a district, or perhaps the majority after resolving preferences or a run-off election, you get its seat in parliament. Imagine further you have two electoral districts in your town with a hundred voters each and where voters favour the two major parties as follows*: the Yellows always get 45 votes, the Reds 55. Both seats go to the Reds.

Now assume that the Yellows have control of the state government and can redraw the district boundaries. They cleverly manage to redistrict the voters as follows: one district now has Yellows 55 votes versus Reds 45, and the other makes up the difference with Yellows 35 versus Reds 65. Eh voilà, the Yellows have won one seat in parliament without convincing a single voter to switch allegiance. The trick is to concentrate your opponent's voters in a few districts that are super-overwhelmingly safe for them while giving yourself lots of narrower margins.

Now coming to the USA, which of course have district-based representation as opposed to proportional representation.

First, the Electoral College. This is the most obvious and widely discussed, as there have now been two elections within twenty years in which conservative candidates won despite losing the popular vote. If election of presidents had been direct, their opponents would have carried the day. That being said, however, the Electoral College is probably the least Gerrymandered of all bodies, not least because it cannot possibly have been done deliberately. State boundaries are just what they are, they do not get redistricted easily. Still, I assume that urbanisation has an effect here. Many Americans are concentrated in a very small number of states, in huge metropolitan areas, which are strongly leaning progressive. Most states are rural, rural voters lean conservative, and consequently the Electoral College leans conservative.

(By the way, I find it extremely bizarre how these discussions go on American websites. On many sites I have read in the last two weeks there will be commenters who complain about the Electoral College not reflecting the popular vote. And then there will always be somebody replying to the effect of "it is doing exactly what it was meant to do, that is stopping a minority [of states] from dominating the majority [of states]". This is weird, isn't it? There are two main political camps; either the first "dominates" the second, or the second "dominates" the first. You cannot say that when the first doesn't happen but the second does there is suddenly no "dominating" going on. So why should the majority of states count more than the majority of voters? At a minimum I would need more explanation here than is usually forthcoming...)

Second, the US Senate, the upper house of the US Parliament, which has a lot of power. It consists of two senators from each state. Immediately the situation should become clear: the Senate is Gerrymandered by default. Most states are rural, rural voters lean conservative, consequently the Senate leans conservative.

Third, the states. The same principle applies. The majority of states is rural, rural voters lean conservative, and consequently conservative politicians control a majority of the states.

But that was just the districting; there are other factors.

Fourth, for some strange reason US citizens are not automatically registered for voting, they have to make a deliberate effort to become registered voters. People who have time on their hands will have an easier time doing that. People who have time on their hands are, in particular, pensioners and the independently wealthy, while the working poor will have it harder. Old and wealthy people lean conservative, consequently registered voters will lean conservative.

Fifth, out of ancient tradition the USA have elections on Tuesdays, a working day. This makes it much easier for pensioners and the independently wealthy to participate in elections, whereas the working poor will find it harder to take one of their very few days of leave to stand in a queue for voting. Old and wealthy people lean conservative, consequently voters will lean conservative.

Sixth, it is my understanding that US citizens have a lot more elections than the citizens of most other countries. They elect people for offices that are filled without formal election campaigns elsewhere, such as judges, sheriffs, school boards, etc. This means that participating in democracy is much more time-consuming for US citizens, and will easily lead to voting fatigue. The people who have lots of time to deal with all that are, in particular, pensioners and the independently wealthy. Old and wealthy people lean conservative, consequently voters will lean conservative.

Now I have read those who argue that this is simply the system that exists, so progressives will have to learn how to win elections in that system instead of e.g. whining about the unfair Electoral College. Fair enough. What is more, it works well for the conservatives, and again, I am not even an American. It just kind of seems to me, personally, that the point of a democracy is that the outcome of an election should kind of reflect the popular will. The Americans will have to know themselves what they want, and there does not appear to be any interest in change. Myself, I prefer proportional representation, party-independent committees drawing district boundaries, automatic voter registration, voting on a Sunday, and fewer elections with much shorter campaigns so that there is less voting fatigue. It seems to work well in many countries. Just my two cents.


*) Of course, one of my major concerns with district-based parliaments is that they distort the popular will even without any Gerrymandering whatsoever. If a smaller party gets 20% in each district of the country they will still get 0% of the seats in parliament, a situation that completely disenfranchises one in five voters.

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