June 22, 2005

Democracy, Please

Over at TPMCafe, Petey brings up my favorite pasttime—hammering away at just how un-democratic the electoral institutions of the United States really are—and points out that these un-democratic institutions also happen to be hurting the large-d Democrats. "Red" states, for instance, get disproportionate representation in the Senate, the electoral college, etc. etc. Yes it's a real shame, though believe me, the fortunes of the Democratic Party is not what keeps me up at night. Nevertheless, Petey also notes that the likelihood of real electoral reform, which would include: abolishing the Electoral College, experimenting with proportional representation, giving the hundreds of thousands of citizens living in our nation's capital some sort of political standing, maybe even passing a constitutional amendment guaranteeing—oh I dunno—the right to vote, maybe... sadly, the likelihood of those sorts of major changes happening is nil.

For the most part I agree, although I still intend to clamor for this stuff at every turn. One should also note that not all electoral reform is out of reach; smaller stuff at the margins is certainly possible. For example, if we can just disabuse little states of the notion that they benefit from the Electoral College (they don't), maybe we can get that monstrosity abolished. Meanwhile, it's often forgotten that single-member House districts didn't become a federal requirement until the 1960s—there's no reason we can't reverse the trend and start electing representatives on a statewide basis. And some state -level experiments—like doing away with bicameral legislatures, which are really quite ridiculous when you think about it—could be tried. Heck, one day liberals might even get to install a few Supreme Court Justices who don't believe that the whole purpose of Equal Protection Clause is to deny minorities political representation. One can hope! So yeah, there are incremental things to be done, although I agree, even those aren't easy.

Nevertheless, there's one major blight to our democratic system that is both entirely shameful and easy to fix. It has to do with prisoners and voting rights. Ideally, one day I'd like to see all prisoners given the right to vote—yes, even while they're in prison. (The picture on the right is a Canadian prisoner voting in 2004.) But that's so whoppingly pie-in-the-sky that I'll settle for a constitutional amendment that guarantees ex-felons, at least, the right to vote. That 1.4 million Americans who have repaid their debt to society cannot vote is not something that should stand.

Nevertheless, many people are opposed to even that, and while I think they're wrong, I don't think they're unreasonable. What is unreasonable, however, is this: despite the fact that prisoners can't vote, they are still counted for census and reapportionment purposes to swell and fatten House districts. Going back to the partisan theme here, since prisoners are usually shipped from heavily minority urban areas to prisons located in overwhelmingly white rural areas, this, shall we say, benefits one party more than the other. Republican State Sen. Dale Volker in New York, for instance, gets to count the 11,000 Attica prisoners as part of his district, despite the fact that they certainly aren't allowed to vote for him, or anyone else for that matter. Effectively, the whole scam redistributes power away from urban communities.

This sort of practice, of course, isn't new. It's exactly what Southerners did with slaves prior to emancipation—the slaves would be counted in the census as part of the population (each slave counted as three-fifths of a person), so as to give Southern stats more House seats and more Electoral College votes, but those slaves could not, of course cast a vote. Now regardless of how you feel about giving prisoners the right to vote, there is nothing even remotely approaching a principled argument in favor of counting the 2.5 million disenfranchised prisoners for census and reapportionment purposes. It has to end. And just this one tiny, simple, wholly defensible reform would make the United States at least a wee bit more democratic. Hey, change has to start somewhere.
-- Brad Plumer 4:30 AM || ||