Steps the U.S Can Take To Become More Democratic

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If you’ve kept an eye on the editorial pages of the major papers all over the country, you’ve probably seen a variety of calls for ways to change the fabric of democracy to make things like voting and representation in the government more equal.

Thought leaders are increasingly calling for a refresh of everything from the frequently maligned Electoral College to the Supreme Court. Here’s a breakdown of some of the leading changes that experts think we need to make to represent every citizen in the country better.

Abolish the Electoral College

Every time the presidential election comes around, we see a swath of editorials arguing for the dissolution of the archaic Electoral College system that’s been in place since 1787 – for good reason. It doesn’t accurately reflect the makeup nor the voting preferences of the American public.

To understand why, though, it’s essential to understand what the Electoral College is and how it came about. The Electoral College was created during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. It was created as a compromise between the delegates — one side argued that the president of the United States should be elected by the popular vote, while others argued that Congress should choose the president. Every four years, a temporary and select group of “electors” are nominated to the Electoral College. The number of electors a state gets is based on the number of seats it has in the House of Representatives. Washington D.C. receives three electoral votes, even though it’s not technically considered to be a state. Places like Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. territory, do not get electoral votes.

Gallup poll from September shows that more than 61 percent of those polled think that the Electoral College should be abolished in favor of allowing the people to directly vote for the president in the popular vote.GETTY IMAGESADVERTISEMENT – CONTINUE READING BELOW

A patchwork of state laws all over the country determines how an elector gets to be a part of the Electoral College. The Constitution outlines only a few limits on who can and cannot be an elector: They can’t be a member of Congress or hold a federal office. They also cannot be or have been “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or given aid or comfort to its enemies.” Most electors are long-time politicians or public servants who are often given a spot on the Electoral College as a reward for their service. Additionally, most are nominated and then elected as Electors at their party’s convention before the presidential election.

The main problem with the Electoral College is that Electors can choose to ignore the popular vote in their state and vote for whichever candidate they want. That’s caused some serious issues in past elections. Five times in the past 200-plus years since the United States was formed, presidents have won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College, including the most recent presidential election in 2016, where Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 3 million votes over Donald Trump. Op-eds like this one in the New York Times argue in support of getting rid of the Electoral College for this reason.

It’s not just policy wonks who want to get rid of the dated and non-representative electoral college. A Gallup poll from September shows that more than 61 percent of those polled think that the Electoral College should be abolished in favor of allowing the people to directly vote for the president in the popular vote. In the poll, 89 percent of Democrats and 23 percent of Republicans support the abolishment of the Electoral College.

Those opposed to getting rid of the Electoral College argue that the popular vote can be rife with corruption and that the Electoral College prevents some of that, as this Wall Street Journal Op-Ed from September argues. Essentially the thinking is that the Electoral College is less subject to the meddling of outside influences (like Russia) because it offers less access than a popular vote does to things like voting machines and infrastructure.

Expand the Supreme Court and set term limits

After the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the recent confirmation of conservative justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, the country has begun discussing whether or not to expand the Supreme Court beyond the nine judges who currently sit on it, and whether to impose term limits like those that other nominated and elected officials are subject to.

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land and regularly rules on significant cases ranging from abortion rights to gay marriage. It hasn’t always had nine justices, and, in the years between 1789 and 1869, Congress, which determines how many people can sit on the Supreme Court, expanded and shrunk the number of justices on the bench. As few as five judges sat on the court in the 1800s. At issue with each one of these contractions and expansions was the idea of “court-packing,” where a president (who nominates a justice to the Supreme Court) could try and “pack” the Supreme Court to shift it to more liberal or conservative ideals based on their preference.ADVERTISEMENT – CONTINUE READING BELOW

The 18-year tenure is what most pundits and academics believe to be best for term limits for the Supreme Court.CHIP SOMODEVILLA

After Ginsburg’s death, the idea of increasing the number of seats on the court to shift it back from the current (6-3) conservative bent resulting from the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, has gotten some ink in top newspapers and magazines. Democratic Presidential Candidate Joe Biden has said he is opposed to expanding the Supreme Court. Scholars agree, arguing that allowing the court to expand beyond its current nine seats simply means that the highest court in the land will get pulled into partisan politics and lose its judicial independence. Yet, some critics argue that this has already happened in the current system.

There is also the argument that there should be term limits for Supreme Court justices. Current law dictates that a Supreme Court Justice serves for their lifetime, or until they decide to step down, usually due to health or aging issues. During his presidency, Trump has nominated a total of three conservative justices to the bench — Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsoch (though in June he ruled in favor of preventing workplace discriminating against LGTBQ individuals, which shocked the country and angered conservatives), and Amy Coney Barrett — to fill the vacancies left by the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy and the deaths of Antonin Scalia and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Supporters of the current system argue that a Supreme Court that turns over more frequently could introduce doctrinal instability and judicial whiplash.

The most widely circulated term limit suggestion comes from Steven G. Calabresi, a professor at the Pritzker School of Law at Northwestern, who penned an op-ed for the New York Times arguing for an 18-year term limit. The argument supporting this idea is that it allows enough time for Justices to do their work, but it also prevents them from trying to wait out a president who doesn’t see eye-to-eye with them. It also prevents justices from continuing to remain on the court when they are physically or mentally unable to do so. It would also prevent the “arbitrariness and polarization inherent in the nominations process” as the SCOTUS Blog notes, as was argued during a virtual discussion in August.ADVERTISEMENT – CONTINUE READING BELOW

The 18-year tenure is what most pundits and academics believe to be best for term limits for the Supreme Court for a variety of reasons — as The Hill argues, “18-year terms would allow a president to appoint a new Supreme Court justice every two years, like clockwork, every odd-numbered year — nine justices every 18 years. Each president would appoint two justices during a four-year term, and four justices during an eight-year presidency. This would eliminate the element of luck in Supreme Court appointments, end strategically-timed retirements, and ensure that the high court truly represents the American people.”

Grant statehood to Puerto Rico & Washington D.C.

Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico have long been the red-headed stepchildren of the United States. Neither is recognized as a state, yet both have some form of input into the nation’s laws and politics. There’s some chance that that could change with the 2020 election, and there are arguments on both sides that make sense.

Washington, D.C. covers just 68 square miles of land and has the most influential hold over national politics. In June, the House of Representatives voted to shrink the District’s size to include just the Federal buildings and turn the area outside that line into the 51st state. It’s not likely that the measure will get to the Senate before next year, but the process is moving forward. More than 700,000 residents live within the boundaries of the District, and they currently do not get any representation in the Federal government.

By granting statehood to D.C. and Puerto Rico, the new states would gain four new Senate seats that many believe would go to Democrats.

Puerto Rico, on the other hand, is in a different stage of statehood. The island has long been a U.S. Territory (since 1898), which means that its citizens can vote in the primary, but not in the general election. Puerto Rico also does not have any voting representatives in Congress, though they do have a “resident commissioner,” Jenniffer A. González Colón. More than 3 million people live in Puerto Rico, and statehood has been on the ballot five times in the past. Two of the five times, the people of Puerto Rico have voted to become an official state. The measure is on the ballot again this year. A poll conducted by Gallup in 2019 showed that 66 percent of those polled support statehood for Puerto Rico.

By granting statehood to D.C. and Puerto Rico, the new states would gain four new Senate seats that many believe would go to Democrats. D.C. and Puerto Rico would also shift seats in the House of Representatives, granting three seats to Puerto Rico and one to D.C. Those seats would be taken from other states, including New York, Florida, Texas, Montana, and Illinois, and keep the number of U.S. Representatives to 435. Many believe that the shift in the balance of Republicans and Democrats in Congress would be impacted as a result.

Those opposed to the idea of D.C. becoming a state argue that D.C. residents could have a disproportionate impact on Federal laws and regulations by virtue of their location. Those opposed to Puerto Rico becoming a state say that it should be its own country, instead.

Change the way states are represented in the Senate

There have long been arguments about increasing the number of Representatives in the House, but the idea of expanding the number of seats that states get in the Senate has begun to garner some more attention of late.

As many of us know from our grade school U.S. government and history classes, each state gets two Senators, regardless of how large or small the state’s population is. Critics argue that this is undemocratic and that it gives a state like Vermont with around 625,000 residents more power than a state like California with more than 39 million residents. At greater issue, however, is the idea of “racism by proxy.” Essentially, smaller states’ population tends to be largely white, less diverse, and less educated, while larger states tend to be diverse and better educated. The smaller, less diverse states get a disproportionate amount of influence over laws and regulations, as a result, as Vox argues in this 2019 piece. Put another way, the Senators from Wyoming (representing more than 60,000 people) have more than 68 times as much sway as the Senators from California (who represent 39 million people.)ADVERTISEMENT – CONTINUE READING BELOW

There are a variety of proposals out there for ways to fix this inherent bias. One suggests that the way the number of Senate seats are apportioned should be changed to better reflect the more populous states, as The Atlantic argues here. Those opposed argue that any solution introduces an additional bias against smaller states, which the Founding Fathers wanted to prevent.

End the filibuster

A filibuster is a tool that both parties have long used to force the clock to run out on a vote in the Senate. During a filibuster, Senators take to the podium and talk (usually about anything they feel like) for hours on end to prevent a vote from taking place. To close debate on a topic in the Senate, 60 of the 100 members must vote to end the discussion and move on to vote. This is known as the cloture rule. If a senator decides that they or their party disapprove of ending the debate and voting, then they can use the filibuster to delay.

According to the Brookings Institute, the filibuster use has been on a significant rise during the 20th and 21st centuries, primarily as a result of increasingly divisive politics. The filibuster essentially slows policy down and often implicitly kills a bill. Ending the filibuster or Rule 22 requires a two-thirds majority (both present and voting) in the Senate, which most political observers think is unlikely.

The filibuster essentially slows policy down and often implicitly kills a bill.

There are other ways to change or limit the use of the filibuster as well, but they also require several hurdles to be crossed. While most people support the idea of ending the filibuster, there are some pros to allowing it to continue, too. For example, the filibuster allows the minority party to have some procedural tools to stop legislation from moving forward.

Grant voting rights to formerly incarcerated citizens

If you are convicted of a felony in half the states in the U.S. you can lose your right to vote for the rest of your life — even after you serve out your sentence and do your time. While felony convictions are usually reserved for the most serious crimes, many who are charged with such infractions face a significant, uphill and expensive battle to be able to vote again, and it’s a highly charged debate.

Those who support returning citizens’ right to vote argue that these kinds of convictions disproportionally impact people of color, since a majority of the prison population in the United States is comprised of Black and Brown people. The Sentencing Project says that one out of 44 adults or 2.27 percent of the total U.S. voting eligible population is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction. The key argument in support of returning citizens’ voting rights is that they have served their sentences and they deserve to have their constitutional rights restored.

The key argument in support of returning former felons’ voting rights is that they have served their sentences and they deserve to have their rights as citizens restored.GRACE CARYGETTY IMAGES

The state of Florida currently has the most disenfranchised formerly incarcerated citizens, according to the Sentencing Project. Nearly 900,000 people who were convicted of felonies, served their sentences, and live in Florida, do not have voting rights, even though the state voted in 2018 to restore their right to vote.

Those opposed to granting formerly incarcerated people the right to vote say that the laws that take away a their right to vote, are in line with other voting laws, like legal age to vote, residency, and laws that prevent sex offenders from living near schools, or those that prevent violent criminals from legally obtaining a gun.

The impact of allowing returning citizens to vote could greatly shift the political makeup of the country, and some argue it could potentially turn Republican strongholds (like Florida) into Democratic leaning states.

Like anything in democracy, all of these changes require careful consideration if we hope to make our country more fair, democratic, and representative of the country’s true makeup.

As we recover from the divisive presidential election and try to rebuild our country into one that more accurately and fairly represents all of its inhabitants, these are important changes to consider and assess based on their merits, as well as their impacts.

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Abigail Bassett is a full-time freelance journalist, content creator, and television, video, and podcast host whose work has appeared in publications like TechCrunch, Fast Company, Inc. Magazine, Forbes, Fortune, Motor Trend, Shondaland, Money Magazine, and on CNN. Her passion is telling unique stories that change the way we see, interact with, and relate to the world. She is also a Yoga Alliance Registered 500-hour yoga teacher.

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