Democracy is not a popularity contest. Yet.

The arachaic use of the electoral college in US politics has to be replaced by a popular vote for real democracy, argues Conor Dempsey.

As the Democrats attempt to pass a bill to reform healthcare the spotlight is fixed on the Senate; the second house of congress is blocking a health bill backed by a majority in both houses, as well as by the President. In that house the Democrats have 57 members out of 100 and the Republicans have 41, with 2 Independents. The fact that a party with a majority of 16% is not able to pass an important bill is just one symptom of the malfunctioning United States democracy. Equally indicative of rot in the system is the grossly unfair way in which Presidents are elected, as well as a new ruling allowing corporations to fund political campaigns to any degree they wish.
The Senate rule which allows a mere 41 senators to block any bill backed by the other 59 is the filibuster. A filibuster used to be a rare event witnessed on occasion as a last ditch effort to prevent a law, which somebody had particularly strong feelings about, being passed. It used to involve an unusually long speech designed to cease the debate and stop the functioning of the house; if a filibuster went on long enough it would often result in the abandonment of a bill.
The record for the longest filibuster ever conducted in the US Senate was set by Strom Thurmond (R), who held the floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes in an unsuccessful attempt to derail the 1957 Civil Rights Bill. This sort of display of determination is probably in keeping with the intentions of the the framers of the Constitution; they hoped that the Senate would act as a cooling chamber for particularly sensitive bills. The idea was that the Senate would slow down the passage of a bill and that broader concensus would have to be reached in order to pass bills of special import. The bill did pass in the end, and was followed up with a stronger Civil Rights Bill in 1965. The southern segregationists had their last show of determination, as was their right, but democracy won in the end. Nowadays Sen. Thurmond would have a much easier task ahead of him for reasons I will explain.
One hundred years ago, in order to minimise the potentially unlimited power of the filibuster, the Senate decided to introduce the rule of cloture. This put an end to the right on which the filibuster rested, namely the right to unlimited debate. Now, if two-thirds of voting Senators voted in favor, cloture could be called to a debate and a filibuster ended. In 1975 the Senate made a further two changes; it was these changes that took the filibuster beyond the realm of cooling and into the domain of the undemocratic. It was decided that a filibuster could now be announced by 41 senators without any need to actually hold the floor; the filibuster became a simple action with no physical effort involved. It was also decided that three-fifths of the Senate membership (60 Senators) would have to vote for cloture.
Since then there has been an exponential rise in the use of the filibuster. Its ease of use has meant it has become routine. Only 41 Senators are needed to block any bill; the 41 Senators representing the smallest states account for 11% of the population. The 60 Senators representing the 30 smallest states account for 24% of the population.
Senators representing a mere 11% of the population are in theory able to block any bill voted for by senators representing the remaining 89%. Senators representing only 24% of the population can pass any bill. Surely even the most staunch supporters of the sacrosanct document that is the US Constitution can recognise that this is not democratic?
Another sign that US democracy is malfunctioning is the current state of their electoral system. In the US presidential election there is a significant risk of a presidential candidate losing an election despite having had a clear majority in the popular vote. This actually happened in 2000 when Gore had 500,000 votes more than Bush, but because of the archaic electoral college system Bush won the election. The problems with this system are many, and the arguments of its defenders are void. The electoral college is defended as a part of the American political culture, as part of the Constitution, intrinsic to the way politics in the US is supposed to operate. This sort of argument is usually presented as stemming from pride in the Constitution and faith in the wisdom of the framers. There is not, however, any mention of the electoral college in the Constitution.
As Hendrick Hertzberg noted in an essay for The New Yorker, “America has been an inspiration to people struggling for democracy. But, when it comes to actually designing the machinery, the American model has no takers – not among successful democracies at any rate. (The Philippines, Liberia, and some Latin-American countries, which have copied us, are not good advertisements)”.
There is hope that American presidential elections will begin to look more like those in other democratic countries come 2012. This is thanks to a pragmatic new program called the NPV, or National Popular Vote plan. The idea is this: states sign up to an agreement, to be enshrined in their state legislation, stating that once enough states have come on board to account for 270 electoral college votes – the number required to elect a president – then the said states will cast all their votes to whichever candidate wins a majority of the national popular vote. So far about one-fifth of the required 270 votes have been accounted for. This system introduces a popular vote without having to amend the constitution, which is an ideal but unrealistic option.
Unfortunately a recent Supreme Court ruling made a historic change to the law that deals fresh damage to the American political system. The court ruled by a divided 5-4 vote that corporations are now free to use treasury funds to back any political candidate they wish. This decision reverses the ruling of Austin vs. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 1990. The vote rests on the interpretation of the word “person” in the 14th Amendment. The interpretation now includes corporations in some essential ways – the most important being that as far as persons have the right to aid political candidates privately under the 1st Amendment, corporations are now persons. This is an unfortunate decision for a system already plagued by the influence of money.
A question that perhaps the rest of the democratic world ought to ask: is America in a legitimate position to advance the cause of democracy worldwide? Of course, flawed democracy is usually better than no democracy, but as the leading nation of the world America ought to be an example of democracy at its best. It is only fuel for the enemies of democracy that the chief democratic crusaders seem a little shaky in their convictions.
Suppose the US did elect its president based on the percentage of the national popular vote that he received. Al Gore would have been the president from 2000 until 2004, at least. The “war on terror” would have been quite different. There is little doubt that Gore would have invaded Afghanistan; he would have been right to, or so most commentators agreed then and still agree now. He would not, though, have been so quick to believe spook stories about weapons of mass destruction hidden in Iraq; as the Iraq war reaches its seventh anniversary we should reflect on the profound way a broken American democracy can affect the rest of the world.