Voting Without Illusions

It would be wonderful if all the passionate intensity now on display among Democrats, Republicans, and independents was somehow channeled into meaningful and ongoing mobilizations to hold that president accountable to his or her promises, and to put similar pressure on our lower-level representatives to serve us more effectively. But for that to happen, we have to understand why relying on voting won't do the job alone.


I voted for Bernie Sanders here in New York because I agree with his focus on addressing inequality and our unjust campaign finance system. But I have a lot of respect for my friends and colleagues who voted for Hillary Clinton. I get their reasoning; and also I get the agonizing many of my leftist feminist friends have been going through.

I also sort of get the vitriolic intensity of the personal attacks flowing between Sanders and Clinton supporters—though it’s definitely gotten out of control at points. Some of that is obviously the byproduct of online culture: the normal tendency to control your tongue is weakened when your sit safely behind a screen, plus a heaping dose of misogyny doesn’t help. And some of it stems from the sense that this presidential election may have historic importance, and that if somehow a far-right ideologue or a neofascist wins the White House, all will be lost. So the stakes seem higher than normal.

But what I don’t get is why we obsess so intensively about this single vote, compared to how little attention most of us pay to the many other consequential ways we have of influencing the direction of the country. Most Americans—two-thirds, according to a 2013 Gallup poll—cannot name their own Member of the House of Representatives. Anecdotally, this rings true. After talking with some of my peers about the presidential election, I’ve asked them to name their Congressman or woman. And in a number of cases, I’ve gotten blank stares, including from well-educated middle-class suburbanites. A September 2014 poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that a majority of Americans didn’t even know what party controlled Congress.

One of three state legislators run for election without a major party opponent. That’s right: in the so-called greatest democracy in the world, many of us live in de-facto one-party state legislative districts. The state I live in, New York, is riddled with the kind of political corruption that results when there is little electoral competition. For years, it has been governed in reality by “three men in a room.” That is, the governor, the state assembly majority leader and the state senate majority leader. And yet, there’s been no real upswell of anger at this anti-democratic arrangement. Even with the indictment and conviction of the latter two politicians on corruption charges, and the quashing, by our governor, of an anti-corruption commission that might have exposed his own foibles, there’s been no meaningful rebellion.

We fight fiercely over this one vote for our nominee for president, and then what? Does rallying for one person do the trick?

What exactly, is the difference between the picture of masses of supporters rallying for Barack Obama in 2008, and the picture of masses of supporters rallying for Bernie Sanders in 2016?

It would be wonderful if all the passionate intensity now on display among Democrats, Republicans, and independents was somehow channeled into meaningful and ongoing mobilizations to hold that president accountable to his or her promises, and to put similar pressure on our lower-level representatives to serve us more effectively.

But for that to happen, we have to understand why relying on voting won’t do the job alone. In fact, as it’s currently constituted it’s an absolutely miserable way to ensure that we the people are truly represented, while it is an excellent way to concentrate power in the hands of the wealthy few.

Gaming the System

The game we are all obsessing about, called voting for a leader, doesn’t work if its purpose is to actually produce a democracy, which I think most of us would define the way the ancient Greeks defined it, as a system where the people (“demos”) are in power (“cracy” = rule by). And yet, every four years, here we are, consumed by the outcome of a process that takes power out of our hands and vests it in the hands of a few people who are by design unrepresentative of us. One might even say that it is in their interest to transfix us so.

As Roslyn Fuller points out in her excellent new book, Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose, all systems for apportioning power and representation based on voting fail at the job of choosing representative leaders. They fail for two core reasons. The first is mathematical; the second is economic.

First to the mathematical problems. The system for picking our representatives that we use here in America breaks in a variety of troubling ways. The first, obviously, is the patchwork system of voter registration, which in some states is designed to make it harder for people to vote, in some states formally denies the vote to ex-cons who have paid their debts to society, while in others allows people to register easily online or on the same day as an election. The actual electorate is hardly uniformly created across all states. Then add the stupefying fact that a voter in an underpopulated state like Idaho or Vermont gets something like 66 times as much clout in the U.S. Senate as a voter in California. Then add gerrymandering, which in almost every state is a system where elected officials choose their voters (by designing their district lines) before the voters choose them.

Then look at our “first-past-the-post” system of giving all the representative power to the candidate who gets the most votes. If, by some crazy hypothetical occurrence, every single eligible voter turned out in an election, the people who choose the candidate who gets 50 percent plus one will get 100 percent of the representation, while the 49.99 percent who chose the other candidate will get zero. If, on the other hand, just half of the eligible voters come out, and again one candidate gets 50 percent plus one, three-quarters of the electorate will go unrepresented. Factor in races with more than two candidates, and you can have a politician elected with a minority of the actual votes cast—but they get all of the power.

This is a recipe for rancor and disaffection, as the unrepresented half (or more) of the population stews at being shut out of power, while the represented segment behaves as if it has a mandate. Meanwhile, the people who think they won because their candidate won indulge themselves in the illusion that they have been fully empowered, when in fact one person cannot possibly represent hundreds of thousands, let alone millions, in any meaningful way.

(Proportional representation systems fail too, Fuller notes, even though they do a slightly better job of spreading power around. A multi-party system at least insures that most people get some representation in power. But there have been many cases where, thanks to the quirks of how seats are apportioned, a party that gets less than 50 percent of the overall vote manages to get more than 50 percent of the seats. That was the case for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in the UK in 1983, when her party won less than a third of the total vote but got a majority of the seats in Parliament.)

But coming back to the American system and all the ways that it breaks. Consider the arbitrariness of political parties, which are actually private clubs and do not have to apportion power in their choosing process by any publicly regulated system. (This despite the fact that the state props them up in a variety of ways, including guaranteeing them a line on the ballot, covering the costs of printing those ballots and running the election, and giving them privileged access to the state voter file.)

Right now, some of us are waking up to some of the lesser aspects of the perversity of voting because the rules that our two major parties use for picking a presidential candidate are, shall we say, truly bizarre. In some states, a tiny number of people can show up at a local meeting, harangue each other transparently, and then take an open vote, and the results of that process determine which candidate gets delegates to the party’s convention. In others, a winner-take-all rule delivers all the state’s delegates to just one candidate. And there are the super delegates, who are picked by no voters but have about one-fifth of the seats at the Democratic national convention.

So, to recap, each delegate to the party conventions has one vote, but that vote may stand for anywhere from zero to a few thousand to millions of voters. Right now, as the Upshot points out, a Republican voter living in the Bronx has 46 times the weight in delegates as Republican voters in parts of Illinois, and 29 times the significance as voters in Virginia.

Those are the mathematical problems with relying on voting as the path to democracy. Then consider the economic problem, which is a reality for all representative offices, but the more people a single person represents, the worse the problem gets.

This is where the voting game is rigged so that ordinary voters are almost always destined to lose. The more power is concentrated, the easier it is for those with lots of money to corrupt the system. When America was founded, a Member of the House of Representatives had roughly 40,000 people living in their district. Now that number is about 700,000, which means the average voter today is almost 20 times less represented by their House member than in America’s first years. Meanwhile, because that Member has to communicate with hundreds of thousands of voters, rather than a more manageable 40,000, she needs millions of dollars for her campaigns.

What more perfect way to ensure that our representatives will be targeted by Big Money and corrupted by their dependence on big donors than a system of Big Districts that increase the gap between representatives and their constituents. No wonder political scientists say we live in an oligarchy. The Framers gave us a system with just a few long-serving elected representatives, a short list of targets for the moneyed few to ply. Their fatal error, as Fuller argues in Beasts and Gods, was using the Roman Senate as their model for representation, rather than the Athenian system of mass direct democracy. Given how ancient Rome turned out, she has a point.

We live in a hollowed out system that calls itself a democracy, and fights over the meaning of citizenship to the point of denying it to millions of our neighbors, but that guarantees full participation to only a very few well-connected Americans. We compensate with maddening levels of projection. Watching the candidates speak, we imagine that they “speak for us.” Is Bernie Sanders different? Obviously his supporters think so, because all his small donations means his campaign is paid for by the people, “not the billionaires.” It’s a start, but barely. Right now, Sanders’ supporters have as much influence on what he does or says as Hillary Clinton’s supporters have on her. But at least Clinton supporters have no illusions about that deal.