Opinion | America is not a democracy (and that’s bad)

The Electoral College and the Supreme Court give tiny groups of people immense power over the rest of us. The American future depends on giving power to the people.

Illustration+by+Elijah+Helton

Illustration by Elijah Helton


The first American voters weren’t just white men. They were 21-years-and-up white men who owned property, an entire six percent of the population. Apartment-dwelling dudes wouldn’t be allowed to vote under the Framers’ vision.

It wasn’t just the racism and sexism — though it certainly was those — it was Elitism by Design.

We’re not going to go far into the “we’re not a democracy, we’re a republic” nonsense because:

a) Madison’s understanding of a “republic” meant a king-less consent of the governed was necessary for the keeping of said republic; and

b) democracies and republics aren’t mutually exclusive, and anyone who says differently is selling something.

One last note about the star-spangled Fathers: They would be appalled by our clingy ex-boyfriend approach to the founding documents. Jefferson said every generation should rebel and conceive its own laws to fit its time, and that the alive owe nothing to the dead.

Basically, tradition is just peer pressure from dead people, but that’s enough relitigating what some bougie slavers thought.

The Electoral College

I first pitched this bit as a simple screed against the Electoral College.

It’s simply bizarre that — while there’s no doubt Biden will get more votes than Trump — that it’s still possible for the president to be reelected.

The system is bad regardless who’s in charge because the system requires a small group of people to make decisions in the best interests of all of us.”

I can’t safely prewrite a Biden Wins piece because Pennsylvania or Florida or Arizona might get weird. Our country’s leader is chosen by arbitrarily drawn boxes of stolen land that are assigned president points instead of, you know, counting all the votes and the person with the most votes wins.

You probably already know the basics of this spiel:

– The presidential candidate who gets the most votes doesn’t always win, and that’s bad.

– Less populated states get disproportionate power relative to states with more people, and that’s bad.

– This encourages campaigns to ignore safe states and voters in them don’t have a meaningful voice, and that’s bad.

All of that is true, but the typical takedown of the U.S. presidential voting process often ignores one of the worst parts: faithless electors.

The Electoral College isn’t just a point system, it’s an actual group of 538 actual people casting actual electoral votes.

The 538ers are party insiders and loyalists who select the president. Each state has a predetermined roster of electors from each party and if their nominee wins that state, then that whole roster is designated by their respective state legislature to be the electoral votes.

If that all sounds like voting just with extra steps, it’s worse. In many states, the electors can choose to vote for whoever they want.

If want a government that is truly representative, we must tear the structures that leave almost all of our voices unheard.”

It’s not just a hypothetical. Clinton won Washington State no problem in 2016 but only received eight of its 12 electoral votes. One went to Native American activist Faith Spotted Eagle (not democratic, but neat) and three went to Republican warmonger Colin Powell (exceptionally not neat).

Washingtonians did not and would never choose the former Secretary of State had he been on the ballot, but George W’s Iraq Guy got a quarter of the official tally anyway.

A few hundred elites picking the head of state with no input from the public? In no way is that a democracy. If that’s how the leader of China was chosen, conservatives would never — oh, right.

This isn’t a quirk of the system; it’s the system working precisely as it’s intended, but even then, not really.

Part of the Electoral College’s design was to protect the fledgling country from falling to a majoritarian despot. If the people had chosen some harebrained demagogue who threatened the union, then the College would veto the will of the people and install someone calm and sensible (like a diplomat or a legislator, someone with decades of experience in federal politics).

But, in our case of emergency, the glass went unbroken, so even the failsafe failed.

The Supreme Court

Speaking of those meant to deliver us from evil, if you thought 538 was a small number of people to have unchecked power over the fate of the nation — how about nine?

These failsafe arbiters of justice do not reign down from on high; they’re down here in the muck with us.”

The Supreme Court isn’t elected and its members serve lifetime appointments. That’s closer to a monarchy than anything that’s Of, By, and For the People.

Even in all the current election soup, the nation’s top judges are looking at a case that would invalidate the Affordable Care Act, which makes health care accessible for millions of Americans.

That may sound all fine and normal. One of the first things we’re taught about the separation of powers is that the judicial branch can rules laws passed by Congress as unconstitutional. But, just like the Electoral College, we’ve placed a lot of power to people who can’t face real repercussions.

(And perhaps that’s what the presidency will hinge on within a matter of hours.)

The Supreme Court has made an election go their way before. The Republican-controlled court decided the Bush v. Gore case, which put aforementioned President Bush in the Oval Office.

The Republicans now have six of the nine Supreme Court seats despite the GOP only winning the most presidential votes once in the past seven elections. Positions so powerful shouldn’t be distributed so unevenly and without the backing of the American people.

A few hundred elites picking the head of state with no input from the public? In no way is that a democracy.”

And it’s bad for all sides here. Democrats shouldn’t have this same sort of control just because they were the ones able to cram six people on the Special Judge Squad.

We can speculate about “oh they wouldn’t do that” and muse about judicial independence. But, even with the gravitas and grandeur of the highest court in the land, the bench is still full of partisan actors who will do what they will while the rest of us must suffer what we must.

These failsafe arbiters of justice do not reign down from on high; they’re down here in the muck with us.

The system is bad regardless who’s in charge because the system requires a small group of people to make decisions in the best interests of all of us. If want a government that is truly representative, we must tear the structures that leave almost all of our voices unheard.

How do we fix it?

There are ways to gain democracy and give power to the people.

It may be true that we made our bed, but I ain’t taking it lying down.”

— American Kid by Carsie Blanton

We could expand the Supreme Court and add term limits to make individuals less powerful, or we could just roll back the scope of judicial review.

We could abolish the Electoral College and replace with a most-votes-wins system — perhaps with a fancy ranked-choice option.

We could do so many other things unrelated to the EC or SCOTUS. Election-specific ideas include enfranchising imprisoned people, congressional representation for D.C. and the U.S. territories, and lowering the voting age. A bolder democracy would move to abolish prisons and the police state, end the colonization of native people, and support future generations with radical, we’re-actually-doing-it climate action.

This all looks rather impossible at the moment, yeah? These policies need either constitutional amendments (impossible because, again, our country wasn’t to run democratically) or a shift in the halls of power away from obsessive self-preservation of the ruling class (don’t count on it).

Wherever we go from here, we can’t remain idle if we want a livable nation.

The election happening right now won’t really be decided by the people. It’ll be decided by a few hundred individuals, and even they might get overrun by a single-digit group if anyone scares up a reason.

Maybe Biden is about to win in an unquestionable landslide, or maybe we’ll be in a much darker timeline. The latter is much more dire and constitutional rewrites won’t be the first concern, but — whatever future American step into — the American future depends on realizing we got into this mess because our Elitism by Design.

Building something better won’t solve all the ails our nation, but it will give us a chance to survive.

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