In its current form, the United States electoral system discriminates against large segments of the population, reinforces the power of money to influence politics, serves to bolster the two-party system and produces results that often conflict with the will of the majority. Perhaps in recognition of this state of affairs, only 51 percent of eligible voters participated in the last US presidential election in 2000, the lowest level in the advanced industrial world. The reality is that the representative nature of the US government, as determined by elections, is more myth than reality–a comforting storyline that masks a harsh truth.
Consider the following facts:
§ There are no African-American or Latino members of the US Senate.
§ Barely a quarter of the adult population voted for any of the current members of the US House of Representatives.
§ Major-party Senate candidates spent an average of $4.8 million in the 2002 election cycle (making extremely remote the possibility of a successful candidacy by an individual without access to personal wealth or wealthy contributors).
§ Women hold just 14 percent of seats in Congress.
§ There are no members of Congress representing Washington, DC–a city of more than half a million people, a majority of whom are racial minorities.
Why is it that the overwhelmingly white male population of the representative government looks so different from the diverse population of the country? Maybe because voting policies and procedures promote disenfranchisement and nonparticipation, while the election system fosters non-competitive races, limited options and plurality, rather than majority, winners. There are numerous ideas on the table to reform the current system, virtually all of them in effective practice elsewhere in the world. We summarize many of them below.
A Constitutional Right to Vote
Contrary to popular belief, there is no constitutional right to vote in the United States. Although federal law prohibits the disenfranchisement of particular groups of potential voters, it falls far short of guaranteeing the right to vote. As the Supreme Court made clear in Bush v. Gore in 2000, the states are not even required to allow people to vote in presidential elections–they can simply assign the task of choosing electors to their legislators.
The fact that no constitutional right to vote exists leaves the election system decentralized, and thus seriously vulnerable to disenfranchisement at the state and local level–from purges of voter lists on account of past felony convictions to confusing administrative practices that complicate the registration and voting processes. In fact, more than 4.5 million Americans are currently forbidden from voting on account of felony voting restrictions alone, which disproportionately affects the poor.
Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. has introduced HJ Resolution 28, which would add a right to vote amendment to the US Constitution. This would be a positive step on the road to fairer elections and more meaningful representation.
Independent Redistricting Commissions
Beyond just the right to vote, a representative government depends on meaningful elections, which give the people a real voice in selecting their representatives–and thus, a way of holding their elected leaders accountable. But thanks to the corruption of political gerrymandering, combined with the current winner-take-all system (discussed below), few people today actually have the opportunity to vote in competitive Congressional elections. Instead, they vote in landslides–elections specifically engineered to insure that a given party emerges victorious.