The United States, for better or for worse, is considered the most influential nation in the global context. Due to this and being a (somewhat) democratic nation they are often held up as an example of what a democracy should look like. Let’s be real, the United States is an absolute mess. The US system entrenches class divides, continues to marginalise minority groups, and completely disenfranchises its population. The system is broken and only sweeping reform can fix it, unfortunately it’s the system itself that prevents the United States from progressing.
The Constitution is dumb
The immediate problem is a rigid constitution that requires two-thirds of both houses of Congress or two-thirds of States requesting a Constitutional Convention, the latter being a process in which the states may propose constitutional amendments. After that, it requires three-quarters of all state legislatures (which are like our state parliaments) must ratify the amendment for it to be adopted and enter into force. That’s a heavy process, and only 27 amendments have survived that process. The process is arduous, and on average takes a year from when Congress passes the amendment to when the States ratify it. The most recent took 202 years, having been submitted along with the first 10 amendments that did pass, and was adopted in 1992. Even a system as rigid as the Australian referendum model functions better than the United States. This failure of this function fails to address the problems the United States has with its systems, a key example being the model in which the US President is elected.
The Electoral College
The Electoral College is the source for much confusion and debate. In my personal view it’s flawed and does not represent how a head of state, especially one with strong executive authority, should be elected. The Electoral College has the delegated power to elect the President and Vice President. Members are elected by States in a “winner takes all” method. California holds 55 of the 538 electors, and if a candidate were to win one more vote than their nearest opponent they would receive all 55 as “pledged electors”, with 270 being the magic number needed for the presidency. Anyone who followed the 2016 election knows that Trump didn’t win the popular vote but did win the Electoral College.
The 2016 election highlights two problems with the current system, it can elect someone who does not have the support of the entire nation (expressed via a vote), and electors are not required to vote for their pledged candidate. Seven electors voted for candidates they were not pledged to, 5 of these had been pledged to Hilary Clinton, 2 for Donald Trump. The Electoral College further fails to directly consider the possibility of a tight race with a third candidate carrying one or more States. Sure, a candidate failing to reach an absolute majority would lead to a vote in the House of Representatives, however this has its own problems.
Gerrymandering, the practise in which electorates are drawn up in manner that unfairly advantages a particular group usually the one drawing them, has historically been rife within the United States. Only recently have the Courts begun handing down judgements that have struck down heavily gerrymandered districts. Most states set their own Congressional districts, this has resulted is some rather strange looking districts. The State of Maryland’s districts are a mess of snaking arms and downright weird shapes. Maryland’s third district is considered one of the most gerrymandered districts.
Pennsylvanian Republicans recently had their proposed redistricting struck down by the State Supreme Court and ordered to propose a fair electoral map within 2 weeks. The map that was struck down was heavily in favour of the Republican Party. A Democrat proposed map was fairer and more adequately reflected the States partisan makeup. However, as legislators failed to produce an agreed upon map within the timeline the State Supreme Court has produced their own map, one that favour the Democrats even more than the Democrat proposed plan! Republicans have once again issued a request for the US Supreme Court to intervene and hear the case, something the court has so far been unwilling to do. The result of this conflict over electoral maps could indicate the future for gerrymandering in the United States, and what we can expect for the future of US democracy.
Some states have moved to adopt independent commissions (much like our Australian Electoral Commission), but these are in the vast minority. If States can gerrymander their districts, then the US Congress can hardly be considered an accurate representation of the US population. The Senate is arguably better in terms of its function with 2 representatives per State, but it was only since 1912 that Senators were elected by voters in that state. Not to mention that all US Territories, including the District of Columbia, have no representative in Congress and are thus disenfranchised.
If we can’t rely on legislators to push the US towards progress, then we would need to rely on the courts, wouldn’t we? A problem occurs when we recognise that the Supreme court is charged ideologically, with incumbent Presidents or Governors often proposing an “ideological ally” to the court. With the previously mentioned Pennsylvania case having a Supreme Court filled with Democrats. The courts, which have been relied upon to make constitutional interpretation in lieu of the ability to change it, can be lopsided with those either in favour of a change, or those against. Of course, this risk is limited in that a President can only appoint a Justice if a vacancy occurs. This does not however mean the system is working as it should.
The United States continues to operate under and archaic system that divides and marginalises its population, damaging the fabric of what is already a very flimsy democracy. It is a system in crisis and in sore need of an overhaul, unfortunately it’s the system itself that will fail to avert the crisis.