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Democracy & The Right to Vote

The 2000 presidential election and its aftermath raised a number questions about the nature of our democracy and the right to vote.  Some of these questions, and my thoughts on them, are listed below.

Is the United States a Democracy?

The answer to this question seems obvious, and it is.  Of course the United States is a democracy.  So why am I bothering to address the issue?  Two reasons -

First, discussing this question will give me the opportunity to define some terms that I will use hereafter.  And second, it also will allow me to put to rest a myth that is commonly asserted by American conservatives.

Here's something fun you can try the next time you are arguing a point with a conservative.  Say something like "that's not the way it should be in a democracy" or something else that implies that the U.S. is a democratic country.  Whether or not it is relevant to the point you are arguing, there is a reasonably good chance that your conservative friend will reply that the United States is not a democracy, it is a republic.

The problem with this claim is that the statement is incorrect, and the distinction between a republic and a democracy, by itself, is misleading, and ultimately fairly meaningless.  My best guess as to why this myth is being perpetuated by conservatives is that they think it will show that the "Republican" party is more representative of the American system than is the "Democratic" party.

A "republic" is a very broad term that basically means any form of government that is not a monarchy.  It is defined in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, as: "(1) : a government having a chief of state who is not a monarch and who in modern times is usually a president (2) : a political unit (as a nation) having such a form of government."  So yes, the United States is a republic.  But so are most other countries of the world today - many of which have vastly different governmental systems than the U.S.  Take, for example, the People's Republic of China, or the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  Saying that a country is a republic does not tell us very much about what kind of government that country actually has.

A somewhat more precise term that is sometimes used is "representative republic," but even that term is extremely vague.  All it means is that the government or some governmental bodies are made up of representatives.  It does not tell us at all about how those representatives are chosen.

By contrast "democracy" is much more specific and meaningful.  In a representative form of government, it means that the representatives are chosen by the people through democratic elections.  "Democracy" is defined as: "1 a : government by the people; especially : rule of the majority b : a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections."

So yes, the United States is a republic.  In fact, it is a representative republic.  But even more precisely, it is a democratic representative republic.  And it is the "democratic" part of that phrase that sets the United States and other democracies apart from totalitarian, theocratic, dictatorial and other non-democratic forms of government.  So when conservatives claim that the United States is a republic and not a democracy, they are drawing a false distinction, as if these two ways of describing a government are mutually exclusive.  In fact, "democracy" is a subset of "republic."  A logical analogy of this claim would be if I'm sitting in my kitchen at home, and somebody tried to argue that I'm not in a kitchen, I'm in a house -- partially true, partially false, but ultimately meaningless.

Perhaps in drawing the distinction, these conservatives are in fact trying to say that the United States is not what James Madison referred to as a "pure democracy."  A "pure democracy" is a system of governmental power is exercised by the people directly.  There are very few examples of a "pure democracy" in history, mostly because it is possible only with extremely small political units (a few hundred citizens at most).  The Greek polis of around 500 B.C. is one of the most well-known examples.  A small town in which all governmental decisions are made through town hall meetings is another example.  But to say that the United States is not a "pure democracy", while true, is not a very useful or insightful claim.  All it is really saying is that our democracy has more than a few hundred citizens and therefore, by necessity, must adopt a representative form of democracy.

The last term I wish to define here is "true democracy."  All democracies have their flaws by which some people or groups of people are unfairly denied the right to fully and equally participate in the democratic process.  And by "true democracy," I mean an ideal system in which these flaws are eliminated, the right to vote is not denied on some arbitrary or irrelevant grounds, and all votes are given equal weight.  The Greek polis (used above as an example of a "pure democracy") was not a "true democracy" because while all citizens could participate, citizenship was denied to large classes of people (slaves, women, etc.).  The United States falls short of being a "true democracy" for many reasons:  those living in the District of Columbia have no meaningful voice in Congress, those living is small states are disproportionately represented in the Senate, the electoral college system permits a presidential candidate to win the popular vote but lose the presidency, most states have laws disenfranchising citizens convicted of crimes (even after the punishment has been served), etc.  I will discuss below some of the ways in which the United States can and should move closer to being a "true democracy."

What Are the Downsides of Democracy?

I can think of two major problems with democratic forms of government: the potential of important decisions being made by an uninformed electorate, and what is commonly called "the tyranny of the majority."  But modern democracies, including the United States, have come up with institutional mechanisms that can reduce these problems to a certain degree.


How Was the Right to Vote Violated in the 2000 Presidential Elections?

The 2000 presidential election highlighted many of the problems with elections in the United States.

Should the Electoral System be Abolished?

Absolutely.  And I'm not saying that just because the electoral system resulted in an idiot winning the 2000 presidential election when more Americans voted for his opponent.  There is absolutely no justification for this system in today's world. 

Some would argue that if the electoral system were abolished, presidential candidates would ignore small states.  But I don't think its true that small states would be necessarily be ignored, and even if it were true, so what?  The president does not represent states, he or she represents the people - all the people.  If the electoral system were abolished, presidential candidates would seek to reach as many people as possible.  It would no longer matter where they lived since every vote would count equally.

Who Does / Should Have the Right to Vote?

When the United States Constitution was first adopted, the right to vote was limited to free white males over the age of 21.  In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution extended the right to vote (in law, if not in practice) to all males over 21, regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude."  In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote.  In 1964, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment eliminated poll taxes, which had been used to disenfranchise the poor.  And in 1971, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.

But despite this gradual expansion of the franchise, there are still large groups of people that are subject to the authority of the U.S. government, but do not have a voice in that government because they are denied the right to vote - either by law or by practice.

What About the Partial Disenfranchisement of District of Columbia Residents?

This has been an issue with no simple or easy solution.  The most straightforward approach would be to give DC Congressional representation as if it were a state.  But I think that would be overcompensating.  DC would end up with two Senators and 1 Representative, which would constitute representation well out of proportion to its population.

I'm not sure if this solution has been proposed before, but I think it makes some sense.  We should take a look at the current land use and zoning regulations in the District.  All of the areas that are zones for residential uses should be annexed to Maryland or Virginia.  All of the areas that are zoned for Federal Government uses should remain in the District.  And commercial use property could be divided according to whether it is closer to government or residential sections. 

Under this approach, the only residents of the District would be the President, the Vice President, and possibly some foreign diplomats living in the embassies.  I'm not really concerned about the President and Vice President (and their families) not having congressional representation.  I suspect that they have sufficient influence in the federal government already, and they could probably still vote absentee in the states from which they came.  As for the foreign diplomats, they can't vote anyway.

Of course, this proposal would leave the District with a very small tax base.  A limited tax base is a problem today, leaving the D.C. government with few sources of revenue.  But under this proposal, since there would no longer be any real residents of the District, there is no little or need for self government.  The District could be a federal enclave, run by the federal government.  The remaining commercial properties in the District would still pay taxes, and could perhaps participate in a local chamber of commerce to make sure that their needs are met by the federal administrative agency in charge of the District.

Or maybe this is just stupid idea.

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Last Updated 22 July 2005
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