Observations on Democracy in America: Somethings to Think About


Illustration of gerrymandering from Mr. Pillar’s article


Ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar wrote a decent and heartfelt article on October 5, 2017 entitled “America’s Hypocrisy on Democracy”, published on the extremely credible alternative news site Consortiumnews.  Yet for all its accuracy and good intentions, the article’s inadequate contextualization makes it misleading.  Not deliberately so although the word “misleading” has that implication (compare it to other possible choices such as “confusing” or even “inaccurate”) but, despite the clear lack of intent in the article, it does mislead as most Americans mislead ourselves when it comes to our self-perception.

The object of the article was “gerrymandering” and its subject the case currently pending before the United States Supreme Court (Whitford v. Gill, 218 F. Supp. 3d 837 – 2016; No. 16-1161 Supreme Court of the United States) which seeks to mitigate if not eliminate the practice.  For those unfamiliar with the concept it involves drawing our single member electoral districts in a manner designed to concentrate and diffuse potential voters in order to assure predictable electoral results, e.g., safe districts.  Even more nefariously, it maximizes the minimization of certain voting blocks on a statewide basis by concentrating them in specific districts thus reducing their impact in others (see illustration above).

An example, take a ten voting district state with a million voters, 60% Green Party members and 40% Libertarians (an enlightened dream where the duopoly lies resting in the trash bins of history).  Ethically efficient electoral practices ought to result in either Greens winning all of the districts in our current unrepresentative single district winner take all system, or, assuming we had advanced, like most of the rest of the world, to a system of proportional representation, a situation where the Greens would attain 60% of the posts voted on and Libertarians 40%.  Gerrymandering, by drawing distorted electoral districts in odd shaped patterns could concentrate Green Party members in districts where they would win overwhelmingly.  For illustrative purposes let’s assume they’d attain 80% of the vote in four of the districts.  Such artificial concentration could assure a massive Libertarian victory.  The results could be as follows, District 1, Greens win 80,000 votes to 20,000; District 2, Greens win 80,000 votes to 20,000; District 3, Greens win 80,000 votes to 20,000; District 4, Greens win 80,000 votes to 20,000, leaving only 280,000 Green voters in the remaining six districts but 320,000 Libertarians in which case Libertarians could win them all and though they only had 40% of the total vote, they could win 60% of the districts.  The concept was developed by Republican Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry in 1812 and since then has become a bipartisan tradition after the decennial census required by the Constitution.  Generally, state legislatures reapportion (redraw district lines) based on the census results.  The manipulation used to be even more obvious prior to Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964), a Supreme Court decision insisting on approximately equal sized districts.

A major deficiency with Mr. Pillar’s article is the fact that the “one man one vote’ (now more appropriately “one person one vote”) standard does not apply to our most important institutions, the Senate and the Electoral College where the Constitution itself requires an unequal allocation of votes in favor of less populated states, a difference which makes a person’s vote in the most populated states equal to a small percentage, sometimes smaller than one fifth of the vote of a person residing in the least populated states.  Elimination of gerrymandering will not impact that.  Elimination of gerrymandering will also not impact the wasted vote syndrome inherent in single member winner take all districts where the losers, even if collectively a majority, get no representation at all.

Are there real answers?  Of course; two quickly stand out, one much more probable than the other.  Comprehensive constitutional reform and state level constitutional or legislative action.

After a quarter of a millennium comprehensive constitutional reform seems way past due, but for our incoherent emotional attraction for a document we adore as though it were divine, but as with most religious documents, which we ignore when it comes to our actions.  The current Constitution’s twenty-seven formal amendments and the thousands of informal amendments through judicial decisions (e.g., on issues like separate but equal education, abortion, voting rights, etc.) are sometimes contradictory, usually confusing and all too frequently fail to adequately address essential issues; issues such as: is federalism still relevant, especially given its undemocratic consequences and unequal application of the law; is there any real need for bicameralism; given the adversarial relations between the presidency and congress, would a parliamentary system be more efficient; should nine unelected, life tenured people be in charge of unfettered constitutional control, etc.  Such reform, based on our national experiences to date as well as on experiences and innovations elsewhere could drastically improve governmental efficiency, reduce its cost, and provide a much closer approximation to democratic participatory government.  However, it is highly unlikely that those who most benefit from the status quo, our esteemed Congressmen and women would convene the constitutional convention required for real reform and, although the states can also direct the calling of such a convention, they have never done so.  Still, there may be ways to prompt important state level action, not only with respect to a calling a federal level constitutional convention but with reference to meaningful electoral reform.  Some suggestions follow.

  • First of all, state legislatures, in most if not all cases, possibly through ordinary legislation, could replace single member legislative districts on both a state and federal level with multimember districts designed to implement proportional representation. The Irish Republic currently has the most effective and efficiently democratic model denominated the single transferable vote system which works as follows:  legislative elections are based on multimember districts, let’s use a five member district as an example.  Voters have five votes which they rank in order of preference.  Immediately following the election, based on the number of votes cast, a minimum number of votes for election is determined and applied as follows: assume the number is 50,000 votes and the leading vote getter has received 150,000 votes first place votes; he is declared a winner and 50,000 of his 150,000 cotes are allocated to him with the remaining 100,000 votes reallocated among the electorates’ lower priority winners.  The result is a proportional slates of victors with most parties participating in the election receiving some representation in the legislature, assuming they meet a designated minimum.  More specific explanation and example are available at “Single transferable vote”, Wikipedia located at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_transferable_vote.
  • A similar procedure could even more easily replace the current winner take all system applied with respect to election to the Electoral College in most states. While such a change would not impact the unfair Constitutionally imposed allocation of presidential electoral votes among the states it would make state level allocation fair rather than grant the winner of a mere plurality of the popular vote all of the state’s electoral votes.

Both of the foregoing suggestions can be effected without amending the federal constitution or relying on congressional action and in many states, might even be implemented through citizen initiatives through initiative and referendum (see, e.g., “Referenda and Citizen Initiatives” available at http://www.civicus.org/documents/toolkits/PGX_C_Referenda%20and%20Citizens%20Initiatives.pdf).

While Mr. Pillar’s article illustrates the problem, his perceived solution, like almost all attempts to resolve our political organizational deficiencies to date, is a mere band aid when we need drastic brain surgery, especially given that many of the required reforms seem to be something we can attain without the intermediation of political parties or legislators.

Somethings to think about.
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2017; all rights reserved.  Please feel free to share with appropriate attribution.

Guillermo Calvo Mahé (a sometime poet) is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia although he has primarily lived in the United States of America (of which he is a citizen).  Until recently he chaired the political science, government and international relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales.  He has academic degrees in political science (the Citadel), law (St. John’s University), international legal studies (New York University) and translation studies (the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies).  He can be contacted at wacalvo3@autonoma.edu.co or guillermo.calvo.mahe@gmail.com and much of his writing is available through his blog at http://www.guillermocalvo.com.


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