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The world's greatest democracy?

September 24, 2004 | Page 5

FROM OUR first days in school to the overblown rhetoric of the latest presidential campaign, we are told constantly that the United States is the "world's greatest democracy." The U.S. Constitution, they say, outlines a marvel of a representative government, with "checks" and "balances" to protect individual liberties and prevent the emergence of tyranny.

Yet for all the talk about the "genius" of our "founding fathers," the fact remains that the Constitution was a conservative document when it was written--and it is has been a source of contention throughout U.S. history.

It took the Civil War to nullify the sections of the Constitution that strengthened slavery. Great social movements arose to extend the right to vote to women, African Americans and others, yet despite this, it would probably surprise many people to learn that nothing in the Constitution guarantees anyone the right to vote.

John Jay, the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and a member of the Constitutional convention of 1787, summed up the attitude of the "founding fathers" about the underlying goal of the Constitution: "The people who own the country should run it." If there is anything to "marvel" at about the Constitution, it is that it has kept power in the hand of the small number of people "who own the country," while blunting for long periods of time the demands of the vast majority of people in the U.S.

JOE ALLEN shows how, instead of being the "world's greatest democracy," the U.S. is one of the most undemocratic of all of the so-called Western democracies.

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The Electoral College
The president and vice president aren't elected by the popular vote, but by the Electoral College. The number of electors from each state is based on the number of senators and representatives in Congress. As a result, the Electoral College gives more power to states with small populations. Under this system, in the 2000 election, there were nearly three times as many votes per elector in Massachusetts as in Wyoming.

As we saw in the 2000 election, Al Gore defeated George W. Bush by 539,947 votes in the popular vote--but was denied the presidency because Bush won in the Electoral College. In the U.S. Supreme Court decision--Bush v. Gore--that awarded George W. Bush the presidency, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, upheld the principle that state legislatures could send electors to the Electoral College who weren't even bound by the popular vote in their state.

Unrepresented by the Senate
Every state gets two senators, irrespective of its population. Thus, California has nearly 34 million residents, and Wyoming has a little over 501,000. But both states get two senators. The total population of nine states--Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas--is a little over 15.5 million, or half the population of California, yet these states together have 18 senators versus California's two.

The six least populated states are Vermont, Delaware, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska and Wyoming, with a combined population of around 5 million--about the population of the Chicago metropolitan area. Yet these states account for nearly one-eighth of the votes in the Senate.

It gets worse. Because the Senate favors under-populated states that are overwhelmingly white, racial minorities like African Americans and Hispanics are severely under-represented. There have only been two African American senators since the end of Reconstruction in 1877. If Barak Obama wins his Senate race in Illinois, he will become the third Black senator in 125 years.

No choice in the House
At first glance, the House of Representatives appears to be a far more representative body than the Senate, based on the idea of one person, one vote. But because congressional districts are geographically based and organized on a winner-take-all basis, the reality is that the Democrats and Republicans have a monopoly over politics.

Under the Constitution, state governments draw congressional districts and make the laws governing election eligibility, which means those laws vary widely. The Democrats and Republicans use their influence to make elections less competitive for incumbents and between themselves.

In the 2002 congressional elections, only four incumbents were defeated by non-incumbents in elections to the House of Representatives. The average margin of victory for incumbents was 40 percent.

Capital cities and colonies
Washington, D.C., the capital of the U.S., with a population of 563,000--larger than the state of Wyoming's population--has no voting member of Congress, only a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives. More than 60 percent of Washington, D.C.'s population is African American.

The residents of the "commonwealth" of Puerto Rico are, under federal law, U.S. "citizens," and they are subject to all federal laws--which, during the Vietnam War, included being drafted into military service. But Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections and have no voting representation in Congress.

They have a "resident commissioner" in the House of Representatives who cannot vote. This non-voting "resident commissioner" represents 3.8 million people--while the average congressional district has 500,000 to 600,000 constituents.

America's disenfranchised
The right to vote is denied to large sections of the population by various state laws. Nearly 5 million people--or 1 in 43 adults--have currently or permanently lost their voting rights as a result of felony convictions.

Some 1.4 million African American men--or 13 percent of the African American male population nationwide--are denied the right to vote. In certain states, such as Alabama or Florida, nearly one out of three Black men are disfranchised. In Florida, 600,000 ex-felons were unable to vote in the 2000 presidential election.

For others, their only "crime" was to have been born outside the United States. According to the 2000 census, there are 30 to 40 million foreign-born people in the U.S.--of which more than 20 million are legal residents, but non-citizens, and over 9 million are undocumented. The 9 million undocumented are denied the right to vote outright.

Until the 1920s, resident aliens were allowed to vote in many state and local elections, but after that point, voting rights were tied to citizenship. Today, except in a handful of localities, millions of legal aliens--despite having lived in the U.S. for many years--cannot vote in local, state or federal elections.

Meanwhile, a large of young people are still denied the right to vote. The voting age was reduced from 21 to 18 in 1971. But in most states, young people can start working legally at 14 (and that includes paying federal, state and local taxes) and drive a car at 16--yet can't vote until their 18th birthday.

And even if you make it to the voting booth, there's no guarantee that your ballot will be counted. The Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project estimated that in the 2000 election, 4 to 6 million ballots were never cast or counted due to poor design, registration difficulties or voter discrimination.

The unchecked judiciary
Federal judges have enormous power under the Constitution. They are also the government officials most removed from any form of popular control. Federal judges are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate. Their term of office, as described in the Constitution, is for the duration of "good behavior"--in effect, for life.

This is obviously true for Supreme Court justices, who regularly stay on the bench for many decades. The Supreme Court also decided for itself that it would have the right to determine whether laws passed by elected representatives were constitutional or unconstitutional.

While the right wing in this country has made an issue out of "judicial activism" because of certain liberal decisions made during the 1960s and '70s, for the bulk of U.S. history, the Supreme Court and federal judiciary in general has been a deeply reactionary institution.

The Republican-dominated Supreme Court's intervention in the 2000 presidential election to hand the White House to George W. Bush should forever dispel the idea that the court is a check on the power of other wings of the federal government.

Constitutional prison
Amending the Constitution is a Herculean process. Any proposed amendment has to pass each house of Congress by a two-thirds vote, and then win a majority in three-quarters of the state legislatures of the country. In effect, lawmakers in 13 states can veto any constitutional change, whatever the level of popular support.

Since the adoption of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution in 1791, popularly known as the Bill of Rights, there have only been 17 amendments to the Constitution in 213 years, and that includes the amendment instituting Prohibition and another repealing it.

Look at the experience of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s. The ERA passed the House of Representatives in October 1971 and the Senate in March 1972. Within a year, more than 30 states ratified the amendment. But the amendment fell three states short of the 38 required as the final step in the process--despite the fact that polls consistently found that a majority of the public supported the ERA.

States' rights
The claim of states' rights has been used to defend all sorts of villainy in U.S. history, from Jim Crow segregation laws in the U.S. South, to the current bipartisan opposition to gay marriage. States' rights have allowed the richest people in the most politically backward parts of the country to protect their power and privileges. This is as true today as in the days of slavery and Jim Crow, especially, though not exclusively, in the states that make up the old Confederacy.

Take federal labor law as an example. The Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1947, allow for state "exemptions." So in 21 "right-to-work" states, closed shops and a host of other practices that keep unions strong are illegal. As a result, workers are paid less and have fewer benefits and poorer job security in these states.

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