American Democracy Is Broken. Here’s How to Fix It.
American democracy is in trouble. There are all kinds of reasons for this, but one very significant one is our archaic constitutional system that favors states over people.
Take the Senate. The Constitution mandates that each state, regardless of population, is entitled to two senators.
Because of this, the country’s least populous state, Wyoming, with 579,000 people, gets just as much representation as California, the largest state, with a population of 39.5 million.
This is plainly absurd. One person’s representation in the federal government shouldn’t magically be greater or lesser just because that person happens to reside on one side of an arbitrary line on a map.
It’s possible something like this made sense in the late 18th century, when voting was restricted to white male property-owners and they thought of themselves just as much citizens of their states as well as the overall country, but in the year 2018, it is profoundly undemocratic.
Witness the results of Senate races in 2016: Republican candidates nationwide received 42 percent of the vote, yet captured 65 percent of the seats up for grabs that year, or 22 out of 34.
(This is partially because there was no Republican on the ballot for California’s Senate race, in which there were two Democrats running against each other. But even if we add the losing Democrat’s votes to the Republican side, that would still only bring their popular vote total to 47 percent.)
And, of course, Donald Trump ended up winning the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by almost 3 million votes.
Any real structural change to these problems would require a constitutional amendment, something that needs to be approved with a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress as well as three-fourths of the states.
That’s not going to happen.
And the reason it’s not going to happen is because, for the most part, the Republican Party benefits more from these archaic constitutional mechanisms than the Democratic Party does. They’re not going to abolish anything that gives them an unfair advantage.
Since the Republican Party knows the electorate is shifting leftward, they have to restrict democracy as much as possible: not only by benefiting from old constitutional mechanisms, but through extreme gerrymandering and depressing voter turnout by passing racist voter ID laws.
These factors lead to Republicans being overrepresented in the House as well: although Republican candidates narrowly carried the national popular vote in 2016 by 49 percent to the Democrats’ 48 percent, they won 55 percent of the seats.
It’s time to level the playing field.
Despite the handicaps they face, there is a very good chance Democrats will be back in control of Congress and the presidency by January 2021 because of the historic unpopularity of the Trump administration.
If this happens, they should immediately pass a series of electoral reforms that makes our system more democratic.
Passing new constitutional amendments won’t be possible, but there are plenty of things simple majorities in Congress with a president’s signature can accomplish quite easily.
1. Eliminate the Senate filibuster
The Senate is an incredibly undemocratic institution. It’s made even more undemocratic by the filibuster.
In the public imagination, many people believe the filibuster is a way for a principled senator to take a moral stand against a corrupt majority by refusing to yield the floor, thus delaying a vote on a piece of legislation.
That’s not how it works anymore. Today, if a senator objects to holding a vote on a piece of legislation, the rest of the Senate must come up with 60 votes to overrule him or her. If they can’t, the legislation dies. Nobody is forced to take the floor and talk for hours on end.
In practice, this means the majority party must have 60 votes in the Senate to get anything done if just one senator objects to everything the majority party is doing.
The filibuster is nowhere to be found in the Constitution — it’s merely a Senate rule. And because it is a Senate rule, it can be abolished with a simple majority vote (it wouldn’t be possible to filibuster ending the filibuster).
It is unreasonable that a party must have a supermajority of 60 votes to get basic legislation passed.
Obviously, eliminating the filibuster will sometimes mean the Republican Party benefits when they have a majority — but it also means the Democratic Party will benefit when they have a majority, and are freely able to carry out the public’s mandate free from the kind of unprecedented obstructionism they faced from Republicans when they last controlled the chamber from 2007–2015.
2. Add more states to the Union
More than half of Americans live in the nine most populous states. And yet, this majority is represented by a mere 18 percent of the Senate.
This is extremely unfair. If the 579,000 people living in Wyoming really deserve two senators, then the 39.5 million people living in California should have 136 senators in order to compensate.
That’s how many senators California would have if a state’s senators were based in proportion to their population relative to Wyoming’s population and number of senators.
Obviously, that’s not going to happen. The only solution is to admit more states to the Union that would introduce some parity.
There are six such potential places (thus adding twelve senators): Washington, D.C. and each of the five inhabited U.S. territories — Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa.
Washington, D.C., the country’s capital, has a greater population than two states, Wyoming and Vermont. And yet, the city’s residents have no congressional representation other than one non-voting delegate in the House.
This is clearly unjust — which is why D.C. residents have voted overwhelming over the years in favor of statehood, most recently in 2016 in a referendum with 86 percent support.
D.C. also votes heavily Democratic — Hillary Clinton carried it with 91 percent of the vote. Admitting D.C. as a state would all but guarantee adding two more Democrats to the Senate.
Each of the five inhabited U.S. territories should be admitted as states as well. As John Oliver explored in a segment on his show a few years ago, residents of these island territories are effectively second-class citizens.
Residents of these territories are all U.S. citizens (except for American Samoa, due to some old and racist court decisions). Yet, they have no congressional representation except for non-voting delegates.
The easiest way to rectify this situation is to add them all as states.
It’s less clear exactly how the residents of these territories would vote in national elections, but since they are all largely populated by people of color, it’s hard to see them voting for today’s reactionary Republican Party.
The majority of their representation will likely be Democratic, especially if the Democratic Party makes it a priority to champion their cause.
With the exception of Puerto Rico, which has a bigger population than 21 states, each of the territories have relatively small populations. It may seem absurd and unfair for the 54,000 residents of the Northern Mariana Islands to have just as many senators as the people living in California, Texas, Florida, or any other “big” state.
Yes, it is absurd and unfair. But that’s exactly the point — the way people are represented by the Senate is already absurd and unfair.
Unless we’re going to outright abolish the Senate or change it to make it more proportional, admitting the remaining parts of the United States that are not yet states would likely balance out the unfair advantage Republican voters currently have in the Senate, as well as rectifying historical and political wrongs.
3. Make the House bigger
The House of Representatives is too small. On average, each of the camber’s 435 members represents around 747,000 Americans.
There is nothing in the Constitution that says there must be 435 members. Congress regularly enlarged the House throughout history to account for population growth, but hasn’t done so since 1929, when it arbitrarily capped its size at 435 members.
There’s no reason not to make the House somewhat bigger. Japan’s House of Representatives has a somewhat larger legislature with 465 members while having two-fifths the population of the United States, while the United Kingdom has a 650-member House of Commons with a population one-fifth the size of the U.S.
The House should be enlarged to 1,000 members. This would reduce the size of each constituency to 325,000 people, which is still not ideal, but more manageable than the current situation.
Increasing the size of the House would increase citizens’ access to their representatives while encouraging a slew of new candidates to run for office. It would dilute the influence of money in politics since interest groups would be forced to spread their resources over a wider pool. And combined with ranked-choice voting (discussed below), enlarging the House in time for the 2022 midterms would also encourage higher voter turnout and participation.
4. Convert to ranked-choice voting
With ranked-choice voting, citizens vote by ranking the candidates on the ballot in order of preference instead of choosing just one candidate.
If no candidate receives an outright majority, then the candidate on the ballot who received the least amount of first-preference votes is eliminated. The votes that went to this candidate then go to the second-choice candidate of those voters who chose him or her.
The process continues until a candidate with a majority appears.
This method of voting ensures that whomever emerges as a winner more accurately reflects the will of the majority. Voters in Maine passed a referendum in 2016 backing ranked-choice voting for statewide elections after their current governor, Paul LePage, won two elections in a row without a majority.
Ranked-choice voting solves the “spoiler” problem. You are able to vote for third-party or independent candidates without worrying your vote will be “wasted.” So, if your ideology is more in line with the Green Party, but still prefer the Democrats to the Republicans, you can rank the Green candidate first, the Democrat second, and the Republican third.
This would encourage more voter participation in politics as well as make third parties and independents more competitive. Both major parties won’t like it for that reason, but ranked-choice voting also helps solve another problem that could make Democrats get behind it — gerrymandering.
By combining ranked-choice voting with creating multi-member districts — a plan in which the number of districts is decreased and voters instead elect multiple representatives from the same district — the problem of gerrymandering is effectively eliminated.
5. Make voting easier and expand suffrage to every adult
The United States has one of the lowest voting turnout rates in the developed world. Even in presidential elections, which feature the highest turnout, just a little over half of eligible voters bother to turn out.
In 2016, voter turnout was just 56 percent. This means Donald Trump was elected based on the support of 26 percent of eligible voters.
One reason for low turnout is that the process for voting in the United States is more difficult than other developed countries.
First, Congress should make Election Day a national holiday. It is absurd that we expect people to both work and vote the same day.
Next, Congress should pass a comprehensive law making voting easier and expanding suffrage to every adult.
This law should:
- Mandate every state automatically register every voter. No one should have to figure out the process of registering themselves, or worry about missing deadlines to register before the next election.
- Mandate every state have generous early voting and absentee ballot procedures.
- Rescind racist voter ID laws that prevent people of color and poor people from voting.
- Mandate that states that have unjustly denied ex-felons’ voting rights restore them. While we’re at it, we should expand suffrage to every adult currently in prison as well. Because why not.
6. Get big money out of politics
The final cost of the 2016 election, including all presidential and congressional races, was $6.5 billion.
Since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, an essentially unlimited amount of money can now be spent on candidates and campaigns. This means the wealthiest people can essentially buy candidates the way they buy anything else.
Congress should pass a new set of campaign finance laws. These would undoubtedly get thrown out almost immediately because they conflict with Citizens United — unless the Supreme Court overturns its previous decision, which is possible if the Democrats follow my advice in the next step.
These campaign finance laws should limit the amount of contributions individuals and organizations can give toward candidates and campaigns. We should also move toward a system of public financing of campaigns.
7. Expand the Supreme Court — and pack it with liberal justices
You may have been wondering up until now how all these measures will stand up in court, especially since conservatives maintain a 5–4 majority on the Supreme Court.
Even if the Democrats capture both chambers of Congress and the presidency and are successfully able to pass these electoral reforms, isn’t there a very good chance they will get struck down in court?
Yes, there is. Which is why when the Democrats take back power they should expand the number of judges at the district and appellate levels, as well as the Supreme Court.
Expanding the number of judges at the district and appellate levels used to be routine to keep up with population growth and rising numbers of caseloads, but Congress hasn’t bothered to do so in decades, forcing judges to work long hours.
Expanding the number of federal judgeships would both be the right thing to do and obliterate the influence of Trump appointees. This may seem unfair, but Republicans blocked an unprecedented number of Obama nominees. This would be merely correcting that wrong.
Expanding the Supreme Court will be more controversial, but Democrats should do it anyway.
First, there is nothing in the Constitution that says there must only be nine members. The number of members is set by law by Congress. To add more members to the Supreme Court, all that has to happen is for Congress to pass a law stating how many members there should be and for the president to sign that law.
The idea that there should be nine members is an unofficial norm that used to be observed by both political parties. However, Republicans essentially blew this norm up when they refused to even give Merrick Garland, Barack Obama’s nominee to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat, a hearing.
If Hillary Clinton had won the election, Republicans would likely have attempted to block any of her nominees indefinitely, as many of them openly stated they would do, in effect changing the number of seats to eight.
It’s time for a new norm. And that norm should be essentially what FDR’s failed court packing plan consisted of in the 1930s: the president should be able to appoint an additional justice to the Court for every justice still there past the age of 70.
There are currently three Supreme Court justices over the age of 70, and another two will be so by January 2021. A Democratic president appointing between three and five new justices would give the Court a liberal majority.
FDR’s plan failed because it was viewed as presidential overreach, but today it is the Republican Party that has violated basic norms in service to a reactionary agenda. It’s time for the Democrats to level the playing field.
Everything I’ve outlined here could be accomplished with simple majorities in Congress with a president’s signature, provided the filibuster in the Senate is eliminated.
Republicans currently have unfair advantages in the House, Senate, and the presidency, and have violated traditional norms to skew the judiciary into a reactionary direction.
These slew of reforms will give a unified Democratic majority a chance to actually govern, instead of being blocked at every corner by a dwindling right-wing minority with overrepresented influence.
In truth, the title of this piece is not accurate — American democracy is not so much broken, as it hasn’t been given a chance to succeed. These measures will help it do that.