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By Design: How The US Constitution Leads To Minority Rule

Key Points on Undemocratic Elements in the U.S. Political System

  • Senate Representation Disparities: Every state gets two senators, regardless of population. A vote in Wyoming is around 68 times more powerful than a vote in California.
  • House Representation Limitations: The House has maintained 435 seats since 1911, despite a tripling of the U.S. population, leading to diluted representation.
  • Electoral College Concerns:
    • The U.S. uses electors instead of a direct popular vote to select the president.
    • Presidents can (and have) won without securing the most public votes, e.g., the 2000 and 2016 elections.
  • Judiciary’s Undemocratic Structure:
    • The current Supreme Court composition: Five out of nine justices were nominated by presidents who lost the popular vote.
    • A noted discrepancy exists, as the Republican Party, which hasn’t won a popular vote in presidential elections since 2004, has a majority on the Supreme Court.

The House: Problems Beyond Numbers

Billed as the “people’s house”, the House of Representatives should be the direct voice of the American citizenry. But several design and practice issues raise democratic concerns:

  1. Gerrymandering: Manipulating district boundaries to gain political advantage can distort representation. Shockingly, analysis of various elections has shown that up to 90% of House races are so uncompetitive due to gerrymandering that the winner is essentially predetermined.
  2. First Past the Post: The system often sidelines significant minority opinions. For instance, a candidate could potentially win with just over 50% of the votes, leaving nearly half the electorate unrepresented.
  3. Capped Seats: The House’s number of seats is capped at 435, a figure that hasn’t changed since 1911. In this time, the U.S. population has tripled. Some states like Montana represent over a million people with a single representative, while a state like Rhode Island, with a similar population, has two representatives.

The Senate: A Legacy of Imbalance

While the Senate was designed to be a stabilizing force, ensuring every state’s voice is heard, its present form and functions raise several red flags:

  1. State Legislator Appointments: Before the 17th Amendment in 1913, senators were not directly elected by people but were appointed. This often led to a Senate that might not reflect its state’s demographics or prevailing public opinion.
  2. Equal Representation Despite Unequal Populations: Each state gets two senators. This means that Wyoming, with a population of around 600,000, has the same representation as California, with 40 million people. This design makes a single vote in Wyoming approximately 68 times more influential than a vote in California.
  3. Influence on the Supreme Court: The Senate’s disproportionate power is also evident when appointing Supreme Court justices. If senators from less-populated states unite, they can technically represent only 16% of the U.S. population but confirm a justice who affects all 100%.

The Electoral College: An Archaic Institution with Modern Consequences

The United States stands out globally for not electing its president via direct popular vote. Instead, it uses the Electoral College, a system established over 200 years ago. While its framers had intentions to ensure stability and representation, this mechanism has raised contentious questions about its role in a 21st-century democracy.

  1. Electors Over Citizens: Contrary to popular belief, when Americans cast their vote for the president, they’re technically voting for electors pledged to that presidential candidate. These electors then convene to select the president. This indirect method contrasts sharply with the principle of “one person, one vote” commonly associated with democracies.
  2. Winning Without the Majority: Five times in U.S. history, the person occupying the Oval Office didn’t secure the most votes from the public. Recent instances include the 2000 and 2016 elections. In both, the victors lost the popular vote but ascended to the presidency due to the Electoral College’s weightage. Such outcomes can challenge the perceived legitimacy of a president’s mandate.
  3. Small States, Big Power: The Electoral College system disproportionately amplifies the power of smaller states. For example, one electoral vote in Wyoming represents approximately 190,000 residents, while in California, one electoral vote represents over 700,000 residents. This imbalance, critics argue, detracts from the democratic ideal of equal representation.
  4. A Failed Safeguard: The framers envisaged the Electoral College as a buffer against demagogues—candidates who might manipulate public sentiment for personal gain. However, many argue that the system didn’t serve its purpose in recent times. In the 2000 and 2016 elections, the winners—George W. Bush and Donald Trump—implemented policies that many saw as catering more to American fears than hopes.

The Judiciary: Lifelong Appointments and Unrepresentative

America’s judicial system, a pillar of its government, is unique among modern democracies. Unlike the other two branches, the judiciary, particularly at its highest levels, is not directly subject to the will of the people. Here’s a closer look at its undemocratic nuances:

  1. No Direct Election: In the U.S., federal judges, including those on the Supreme Court, aren’t chosen through elections. Instead, they’re nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. This process can, and often does, lead to appointments based more on political considerations than on broad public support.
  2. Life Tenure: Once confirmed, federal judges serve for life, barring rare impeachments. This life tenure, intended to safeguard judicial independence, has its drawbacks. It allows a judge to serve for decades, potentially outlasting the cultural or political context of their appointment. Over time, a life-appointed court might increasingly misalign with the nation’s prevailing views.
  3. Current Supreme Court Composition: An interesting observation about the present Supreme Court underscores the democratic disparity. Of the nine sitting justices, five were nominated by presidents who initially lost the popular vote. This includes Justices Alito and Chief Justice Roberts, both nominated during George W. Bush’s second term. It’s important to recall that Bush wouldn’t have been in a position to nominate them had he not secured the Electoral College in his first election, despite losing the popular vote.
  4. A Discrepancy in Popular Mandate: It’s notable that, as of recent times, the Republican Party hasn’t secured a popular vote victory in presidential elections since 2004. Yet, its nominees occupy a majority of the Supreme Court seats. This disparity emphasizes how the court’s composition might not reflect the broader population’s preferences.


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