The U.S. is Fundamentally Not a Democracy

If democracy is based on majoritarian rule, equal representation and the power of the people to choose who they want, the U.S. is not a democracy.

The Electoral College is the winner-takes-all method of voting in Presidential elections in the U.S. where the vote totals are tallied state by state, and the candidate who wins the majority in each state wins all that state’s electoral votes. Each state is given a number of electoral votes, based on the size of their Congressional delegation (2 votes for the 2 Senators every state gets, plus the size of their House delegation, which is roughly determined by the population of the state). The way these votes are divided sounds fair, but the reality I will explore is the way the Electoral College is set up, as well as the Senate itself, actually demonstrates the opposite. Insofar as democracy demands that one person counts for one vote, and the majority of those voters get to decide who controls the government, these two key institutions alone show how the U.S. is fundamentally undemocratic.

In the Electoral College, depending on where you live, your vote may or may not count for anything nationally. This is because your vote does not actually carry any power if your state consistently votes a certain way every election.

“…your vote does not actually carry any power if your state consistently votes a certain way every election.”

If you’re a Republican in New York, or a Democrat in Arkansas, your vote counts for absolutely nothing at the national level because your state gives all its Electoral College votes as they normally do to the party they always go for. Your dissent from your state’s preferences makes no actual difference, when it absolutely should. Until New York or Arkansas become swing states, where your vote might make a difference, your vote will languish as a statistic with no power. Paradoxically though they are extremely unlikely to ever become swing states, because why would a dissenter take the time to vote when they know it carries no power to change the result? The whole point of dissent is to change results. Thus, many people sit out the national election and don’t pay attention to national politics, because whether you’re a Democrat or Republican you know your state will vote one way and that’s all that counts. Your vote either reinforces the margin in a meaninglessly lopsided fashion or registers against the overwhelming majority to no effect. This results in the abysmal voter turnout numbers the U.S. has, which trails below virtually every other comparable democracy in the world.

Notice how we struggle to get the majority of the country to even vote.

This is to say nothing of the other methods of voter disenfranchisement such as gerrymandering, voter suppression tactics, campaign finance/lobbying, de-funding of poll stations/election infrastructure and myriad other tactics the U.S. and its political parties engage in. These tactics have been taken to new heights in the modern era, particularly by Republicans, who benefit the most from minority rule because of their less populous base. Each of these easily merit their own looks at how corrosive they are to democracy, and how they contribute to the increasingly anti-democratic nature of the U.S. For our purposes, however, the Electoral College and the Senate is all that is needed to demonstrate the majority does not rule and that democracy is fundamentally broken, which is rather astonishing given the poison these other issues introduce to any democracy’s health.

Now, if you are fortunate enough to beat the odds and live in a swing state, then your vote has the minuscule chance to change things, but what is your actual voting power? This brings us to the Senate. While the House of Representatives is based roughly on the population of each state, the Senate gives every state the same number of Senators: two. While this is ostensibly equal, the U.S. population does not, of course, live equally among the states. Democracy is not based on how certain territories vote, it is about the preferences of how the people as a whole vote. What democracy says the will of certain states can outweigh the will of the entire nation?

“Democracy is not based on how certain territories vote, it is about the preferences of the people as a whole vote. What democracy says the will of certain states can outweigh the will of the entire nation?”

The Senate in effect, is arguing the territory people live in matters more than their vote, or even more than the principal of one person equaling one vote. This means that if you live in California, which has a population of nearly 40 million, your vote has nearly 1/80th of the power of someone living in 580,000-strong Wyoming, because both states get two senators regardless. A majority of the country lives in the 10 most populous states, so essentially the majority actually has 20 senators out of 100. How can it be that a majority of the population barely could have a fifth of the Senate representing it in a democracy? Forget about partisanship for a moment. It is impossible for the majority of the people to control the Senate without having an extremely lop sided super-majority, and even then it’s difficult. If the majority of the people have so little representation, is it any surprise that the wishes of the few weigh more than the wishes of the many? The population does not factor into who controls the Senate, so the majority population can’t even attempt to get 50 senators or control over the Senate unless they decide to distribute themselves equally in exact proportion in every state.

The first 10 most populous states comprise the majority, yet are given 20 senators.

Moreover, because the Senate has to approve bills coming out of the more democratic House, the majority of the population can still be vetoed by as few as 18% of the population — 50 senators from the 25 least populous states. The Senate is supposed to safeguard the rights of the minority, but really it is goes much farther, and ensures the groups as small as 5% of the population can veto anything. This is one of the reasons why people have little to no ability to affect outcomes in whether a certain piece of legislation gets passed, because Senators are immune from the demands of the nation as a whole despite the fact they’re literally the representatives of the nation as a whole. If they don’t think about the nation as a whole as federal rulers, who will? This is one reason why policies like background checks for guns that close the gunshow loophole, which 96% of the population supports, never get enacted. Not only do you need a huge majority in the Senate, but because of the filibuster, where one senator can stop legislation from passing, it becomes even more impossible. The most infamous example perhaps was the Southern segregationists filibustering any attempt at reform despite the wishes of the majority of the country in wanting to end the racist policy. I dare say supporters of the filibuster must defend a practice that enables a minority of racists to thwart the will to abolish it, and this has and will continue to play out in similar ways through history. Practically, filibusters usually need at least 5 or 6 Senators to continue the filibuster and ensure the bill dies. With this in mind, let’s take a quick look at the least most populous states now.

The 25 least populous states

The 10 least populous states, representing less than 5% of the population of the U.S., can effectively veto anything. Assuming these rural states have largely different views on guns from the 96% of the population who support background checks, this tiny chunk of the U.S. can stop universal background checks from ever becoming law, as can any few states who band together to filibuster something. Importantly, these Senators often don’t reflect the views of their constituents — many rural gun owners support background checks in reality. Yet how easy is it for a gun lobby or any other lobby to buy off a few Senators or support the candidacies of a few Senators who can then stop anything from passing? This is also why people’s voices are drowned out in a sea of money, you don’t have to buy all of Congress, you really only need a handful of them. In fact, one study found that the preferences of 90% of voters literally did not matter in determining whether a bill would pass or not. What did matter was money, and the lobbying going on. If Republicans control the Senate by 2 votes, you only need 3 votes to kill a purely partisan bill right now. So even if you managed to avoid a filibuster, you simply are outspent by the rampant corruption that has been legalized by the Supreme Court itself in Citizens United v. FEC, where campaign spending limits for corporations was declared outright unconstitutional.

The group trying to pass a bill must convince 50 senators, or 60 in some spending votes, while groups opposed (the minority) need only peel off a few votes for it to fail by filibuster, or even to fail by a partisan vote. People might look at the Senate voting against a bill 62 to 42 and think “oh the majority prevailed.” Yet, lest we forget, that is often not actually the case when you look at the population the Senators represent. The Senate gives a veneer of equality and democracy when really it’s fundamentally undemocratic.

“The Senate gives a veneer of equality and democracy when really it’s fundamentally undemocratic.”

The principle of one person, one vote should be the fundamental underpinning of any democracy. Someone in Vermont should not get 80x the voting power in choosing their Senators, or have an 18th of the Electoral College voting power as Californians. Each person’s vote should count equally towards the total number of votes, carrying with it small but at least real power. The way the system is currently set up, the majority of people have no voting power nationally, and the views of 95% of the people can be thwarted by 5%.

Supporters of the Electoral College must effectively argue it is acceptable that the winner of the popular vote can lose, as has happened with increasing frequency in the modern era. They must defend the fact that people in non-swing states have no ability to change the outcome of a Presidential election — and I do mean no ability, not just a minuscule chance. Supporters of the Senate must defend a Wyoming resident having 80x the voting power as a Californian, which involves promoting voter discrimination within the U.S. based on where you live. If they support the filibuster, they must go further and argue the views of a few Senators should weigh more than the views of the rest of the Senate and the country. Above all, though, supporters of these two institutions and their current setup must defend the anti-democratic nature of them. They must argue the majority should not rule in a democracy, nor should one person equal one vote, because these institutions are fundamentally incompatible with democracy as they are now. To this end, they talk about preserving the rights of the minority. Yet as we have discussed, the preservation of the minority’s rights is all fine and dandy, but what we’re talking about is the thwarting of the vast majority, where minorities as small as 5% can derail a bill from ever passing. If we can’t even pass a bill with 95% support, then the will of 95% of the people is essentially irrelevant.

If you wonder why Congress does nothing, this must be counted as a major reason: how can anyone get something passed when 95% of the country must agree on it to even have a shot at passing? Even when you have that much agreement, we’ve seen any business lobby or special interest group can still thwart it, like with the gun background check loophole. How can anyone genuinely argue the U.S. is a democracy when he have no majority rule, no equal voting power, or even no real ability to pass legislation the vast majority of people want?

“How can anyone genuinely argue the U.S. is a democracy when he have no majority rule, no equal voting power, or even no real ability to pass legislation the vast majority of people want?”

When your vote and your views count for nothing nationally unless you live in the right place, it’s safe to say there is no democracy nationally. While locally they count for something— with the obvious result of people having much more confidence in local government than the federal government — federally we have little to no power because the Senate and Electoral College. Don’t get it twisted, voting is still important because the local level, and we can at least make symbolic statements nationally. In practice, however, when looking at the policy and political consequences that result from people having so little power, that is little solace.

To fix these institutions, there must first be the will to do so. Due to legal constraints, the best chance there is to fix the Electoral College right now is the National Popular Vote Compact, where each state signs on and agrees to allocate their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner. In order for it to go into effect, enough states must sign on to reach the 270 threshold ordinarily used to win the Electoral College; no state is bound by it until it reaches this threshold. Currently states representing 196 electoral votes have signed on, so only a handful more states need to sign on before the whole Electoral College problem is fixed. I encourage you to call your state representatives to urge them to sign on if your state hasn’t.

As for the Senate, the answer is more difficult as it would require a constitutional amendment to change the number of Senators to be in proportion to the population of the state. Two people should not be representing twenty million people each as in California, and California voters should not have so little power compared to less populous states in the Senate. Many leaders of other countries represent less people in the entirety of their lands, yet we ask Senators to represent more while expecting decent representation.

It would be easiest to simply use the House formula in calculating the number of seats each state gets and apply it to the Senate, as people are already united behind this idea for the House. This would not only expand the Senate democratically, but it would become much harder for any lobby or special interest group to capture the Senate by expanding the number of Senators needed to alter the outcomes. It would dramatically increase the representation each person gets in the Senate, and would make one person have one vote in the Senate. To that end, the filibuster must also be done away with, as it is perhaps among the most undemocratic elements of the Senate to begin with. If nothing else changed about the Senate, the end of the filibuster would at least bring the end of a few crazy or corrupt Senators from stopping what the vast majority of the country wants, and that could be easily accomplished by a simple change in Senate procedure.

If the Electoral College and the Senate distribute their voting power by the national popular vote and the population respectively, we at least can be a democracy where the majority rules and each person counts for one vote. Until then, the U.S. at the federal level cannot and should not be classified as a democracy. It is far past time we began to fix our system of government rather than be disenfranchised and disengaged. We must then begin with the fundamentals that are fundamentally flawed. The Electoral College must give way to the popular vote winner, and the Senate must be representative of the people — not the land itself — if we are ever to become a real, representative democracy.

Psychology graduate and law student. I'm a paraplegic writer interested in everything, especially psychology, science, history, law, politics & philosophy.

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