Those who worry that America’s democracy is in decline often bemoan the fact that too few Americans vote. If only more Americans bothered to vote they presume, policy outcomes would improve. Special interests would lose their influence, politicians would prioritize the needs of their constituents, and government policy would better reflect the interests of most Americans.
But while greater enthusiasm for voting would be a positive change, weak turnout at the polls is more a symptom of what ails American democracy than the cause. Turnout is low in the United States because voting in American elections doesn’t matter much. Not only are the winners predictable in most elections, but regardless of who wins, very little changes. More than we like to admit, opting out of voting is a rational choice for many.
This is not a popular opinion, I’m sure. Voting is considered a civic duty and not doing it is seen as irresponsible. Like other politically engaged Americans, I vote in nearly every election for which I am eligible — even continuing to send my absentee ballots to Massachusetts from Canada, despite knowing my vote is rarely going to make a difference in such a heavily Democratic state.
But do I believe my votes, now forty years’ worth, have mattered, other than to make me feel good about having done my civic duty? If I’m honest, no. They haven’t made much difference at all in the direction of the nation. In my most recent two elections, I voted for my state’s victorious Senate candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey. But they would have won easily in Massachusetts without my vote. And do I think Warren’s healthcare plan or Markey’s climate plan are going to become the law of the land? No chance. It’s great Warren and Markey are in the Senate. But it’s not going to make a significant difference in American policy. Mitch McConnell and Joe Manchin will make sure of that.
My cynicism about voting is not about voting in general, just about voting in American elections. As a dual American and Canadian citizen, I also have the right to vote in Canada — and in Canada, I feel my vote does matter. I generally prefer the Liberals, and while they don’t always win, when they do, I can be confident that the government’s policy will reflect the Liberals’ platform. Things I like will get done. In the United States, winning and losing generally mean the same result — little I want gets done in either case.
So what causes the difference? Is it just that Canada is a more progressive nation, more likely to implement the progressive policies I prefer? To some degree, yes. But the main reason is that Canada’s democracy is better designed to be responsive to the people and their votes. The American system, by contrast, is intentionally designed not to be responsive.
The lack of responsiveness stems from the Framers’ fear of faction. In Federalist 10, Madison finds the problems of America’s then-existing democracies to “be chiefly, if not wholly, effects of the unsteadiness and injustice with which a factious spirit has tainted our public administrations.” He worries that in those then-existing democracies “measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” And he praises the proposed Constitution for “its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.”
In fact, the three major elements of the Framers’ design — federalism, separation of powers, and republicanism — all serve as mechanisms to limit the power of faction, whether it be Madison’s “overbearing majority” or (as Hamilton worried in Federalist 22) a “pertinacious minority.” Federalism and separation of powers constrain the power of factions by dividing the government into separate bodies with different powers and giving each of those separate bodies at least partial veto power over the others — the divided powers and checks and balances Americans so greatly revere. Republicanism meanwhile relies on the presumed high character of representatives, their ability to distance themselves from the immediate passions of the people they represent, and the diversity of interests represented in a large republic to limit the influence of factions.
While the Framers were correct to worry about the possible dangers of faction, they failed to understand that democracy also cannot exist without faction. Americans often complain that political parties have corrupted the Framers’ vision, having become exactly the sort of powerful factions the Framers hoped to avoid. They wistfully imagine that if somehow political parties could be abolished, the American system would revert to the less fractious system the Framers’ imagined. But the Framers were simply wrong about how democracies work. Like them or not, parties are not only inevitable but essential in any democratic system. Democracy, after all, is a collective pursuit, and only by forming alliances and coordinating efforts to achieve shared ends do individuals have a chance of accomplishing their objectives in a democratic system. An effective democracy is not a collection of individuals, it is a collection of parties.
Once we acknowledge that parties are critical to the effective operation of democracy, the American system’s alleged strengths become exposed as weaknesses. In their zeal to disempower factions, the Framers’ limited the effectiveness of the government and reduced its responsiveness to the people. Ironically, by weakening parties they also increased partisanship. When the structure of the government leaves parties weak, parties don’t fade away — they are too essential to the operation of democracy to disappear. Instead, they become even more aggressively partisan as maximizing whatever strength they do have becomes critical to advancing their agendas.
Contrasting the American system with typical parliamentary systems is a good way to understand the design flaws that cripple American democracy, making it ineffective, unresponsive, and unaccountable. In parliamentary systems, voters may be choosing a local representative, but they are voting primarily for the party they prefer to win. The party itself chooses its leaders, ensuring that the leaders have the trust and support of party membership and will be effective at advancing the party’s agenda should the party win. Voters aren’t voting for individuals as much as they are voting for a team. The party that wins the majority ends up having full control of both the legislative and executive functions of government, giving it true power to advance its agenda. Parties outside the governing majority then play an opposition role — not governing but providing oversight and offering alternatives to the majority’s policies but unable to obstruct the majority. Each election, the voters evaluate the performance of the government and vote either to retain or replace it. The majority — because it is in complete control of the government — gets full credit for successes and full blame for failures. And because the entire government is chosen in just one election, the voters can reward success or punish failure decisively. This forces accountability and responsiveness in whichever party is in control.
The American system, on the other hand, is burdened by its competing power centres. Rarely does a single party control House, Senate, and Presidency — all three of which must agree to effectively advance policy at the federal level. And of course state and federal governments are often also controlled by different parties with different agendas. This fragmentation of power reduces the ability of government to act and empowers minority factions to thwart the will of the majority, especially given the need for a supermajority to push legislation past a Senate filibuster or to override a Presidential veto.
Rather than producing clean, coherent legislation, the system generates bad compromises and produces bills loaded up with pork and special favours to individual representatives necessary to get the bill the votes it needs to pass through both chambers of the legislature and secure the President’s signature. And once a bill seems likely to pass, representatives rush to load it up with unrelated items they hope can hitch a ride to passage. Donors and special interests have a field day with this process, using their access to representatives to tailor the bill to their preferences and add on their pet projects. Of course, this is what happens when legislation makes it through the obstacle course that is Congress. In many instances, legislation is so difficult to pass that the President resorts to governing by executive fiat — bypassing the people’s representatives altogether.
Not only does this legislative process make it hard to advance good — or even any — legislation, it reduces the accountability of elected officials to the people. Since no one is fully in control of the government, officials can easily take credit for any successes, while placing the blame for any failures on one of the other individuals or parties with whom power is shared. When no one is clearly responsible for the government’s performance as a whole, no one is accountable. The voters, too, tend to give their favoured party credit no matter what it does and blame the other party no matter what it does. Partisanship intensifies to the point of tribalism when responsibility is unclear and accountability can be avoided.
The lack of accountability to the voters is exacerbated by another feature adopted by the Framers: multiple times and methods of choosing officials. Representatives are elected every two years. Senators every six, but in staggered classes that make turning over the full Senate a slow, gradual process. Presidents are elected on a four-year cycle. And justices of the Supreme Court, a court which has far more influence over legislation than is typical of courts in other democracies, are appointed for life resulting in an excessively powerful unelected body that changes slowly and randomly as justices retire or die. If the voters are unhappy with the government’s performance, changing it is not something they can do quickly in a single election. It takes years — the process being too long and too slow to enable the voters to send any clear and forceful message to their elected officials through voting.
A fragmented government, impossible for the voters to change quickly and decisively, is one reason the United States is cursed with its oft-bemoaned two-party system, a system that leaves many voters frustrated thanks to the paucity of choices available. First-past-the-post voting systems tend to result in fewer parties than proportional or ranked choice voting systems. This is simply because a unified opposition is more likely to defeat an incumbent than a divided opposition with multiple candidates splitting the vote. Nevertheless, many parliamentary democracies with first-past-the-post voting systems still have more than two viable parties. This is because of the formal role for majority and opposition parties in many parliamentary systems and because of the possibility that a majority can be formed only via a coalition of parties. Voting for a party that doesn’t win the majority is not necessarily a wasted vote.
Even more significant, though, is that in the United States it is so difficult for even a party with majority voter support to get its legislation through both houses of Congress, signed by the President, and not overturned by the Supreme Court, that only the strongest and most durable parties have any chance of succeeding. A third party would simply be too weak to ever accomplish anything in the United States. Voting for one — at least at a state or national level — is almost always a waste of a vote. For a voter to have any chance of seeing his or her favoured policies advanced, the voter must choose a party that can be as powerful as possible, with a chance of winning as many seats as possible nationally and holding those seats through multiple elections for multiple divisions of government. This limits the number of viable parties to the two strongest at most — and even two is sometimes too many. The rare periods in which one party is dominant and controls most of government are the periods where the most can get done.
The American system has further weaknesses that reduce the value of voting. The most significant is that only the House of Representatives is elected in a way that somewhat reflects the preference of the majority of voters. The Senate was originally appointed, representing state legislatures, not voters. Now that it is directly elected, it represents voters — but because the Senate districts still correspond to state borders, they are of vastly uneven size, leaving people in some states better represented than people in other states. The Electoral College suffers from some of the same representational problems as the Senate, favouring small states over large, though not to the same degree as the Senate. But the winner-take-all approach to allocating electoral votes has created yet another problem — votes for President essentially are meaningless except in closely contested swing states. This gives small majorities in swing states disproportionately large influence over the results of the Presidential election.
Even elections for the House are less meaningful than they should be. Gerrymandered or homogenous districts, as well as voter suppression, limit competition and make the winners of many races completely predictable in advance. And the first-past-the-post system does not account for strength of support. A candidate who wins by one vote has no more power than one who wins by hundreds of thousands of votes. And a candidate who loses by just a single vote has zero power even if he or she is essentially as popular as the winner. In such a system, where the elected officials may not fairly represent the majority of voters, there is no guarantee that what little can get through both houses of Congress, signed by the President, and not overturned by the Supreme Court will reflect the will of the majority of the voters.
A related problem is that oftentimes a party with minority support will have disproportionately large representation in the House or Senate and may even control the House, Senate, Presidency, or Supreme Court, while the party with majority support may have disproportionately small representation in the House or Senate or lack control of one of the governing bodies essential to get its policy enacted. This makes the majority too weak to advance its agenda and gives the minority substantial power to obstruct the agenda of the majority or even get its own agenda to supersede the majority’s agenda. Even if you vote for the party that wins majority support, there’s no guarantee that the majority will be strong enough to overcome the obstruction of the minority.
Yet another significant flaw in the Framers’ design that makes voting less meaningful than it should be is the allocation of power to the states and the federal government. In Article I, the Constitution enumerates the powers of Congress. That enumeration also serves as a description of most of the powers of the federal government. But the list reflects an outdated view of what a federal government should be able to do and because of that the Commerce Clause is stretched to justify the federal government doing much of what it does domestically. Fundamental rights — and the extent of the federal government’s Fourteenth Amendment power to protect those rights at the state level — are also open to much interpretation. This makes much federal legislation vulnerable to challenges in the Supreme Court and gives unelected justices an unusual ability to overturn what in most systems would be quite ordinary legislation. The will of the people — as expressed through the laws passed by their elected officials — can be trumped by the decisions of as few as five unelected justices who may remain in power for decades.
If voters don’t have much power, who does have power in the American system? Increasingly the special interests who fund campaigns. As discussed above, policy and government performance are not significant influencers of voter choice because responsibility for policy and performance is so hard to assign. Instead, the key to winning is to intensify partisan sentiments, to demonize your opponent and to create tribal loyalty among your supporters. Campaigning is primarily a marketing and branding activity that depends on expensive advertising and promotional events, which in turn require large campaign and communication staffs. Because campaigns in the United States are so expensive and not publicly funded — and because law and court decisions allow significant private funding — much of what politicians do is raise money. And that means political donors largely determine what politicians focus on once they take office.
The Framer’s system, then, makes legislation difficult to pass, results in bad compromises and bloated bills, leaves the people poorly and unequally represented, forces a two-party system on the electorate that produces weak competition and unsatisfactory options at the polls, makes elected officials unresponsive and unaccountable to the people but highly interested in pleasing donors, fuels obstructionism and gridlock, limits the ability of the people to change the government decisively when they are unhappy with it, strips the government of sufficient power to do the necessary business of the people, weakens the legislature, encourages government by executive fiat, and empowers unelected judges to overturn popular policy. Voting in American elections accomplishes little other than giving a veneer of democratic legitimacy to a system whose design ensures it will persistently fail to represent the will of the people. If we want voting to matter more — if we want a government that is less dysfunctional and more responsive and accountable to the people — we need to change the Framers’ system. But that too is thwarted by the Framer’s design: they made the Constitution far too difficult to change. Voting won’t save us. Likely, nothing will.