What kind of “democracy” is the United States? Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren asked the question in a big way this week.
“I believe we need a constitutional amendment that protects the right to vote for every American citizen and to make sure that vote gets counted,” she said on CNN. “We need to put some federal muscle behind that. And we need to repeal every one of the voter suppression laws …”
Sen. Warren, D-Massachusetts, called for a national vote “and that means get rid of the Electoral College and everybody counts.”
These two issues: The mechanics of the Electoral College and the idea of counting every vote ought to be front and center in every election. The United States version of democracy is structured to make sure that we are not equal.
Start with representation. American Indians and Alaska Natives are about two percent of the population. Yet in Congress, even after historic wins, there are still only four Native Americans in Congress, a total of two-thirds of one percent.
But it’s not just the Electoral College. It’s the Senate. It’s the districting system in the U.S. House of Representatives (and for that matter, in most state legislatures). The fact, yes, the fact is the structure of this democracy does not ensure a reflection of the country.
So every vote does not count the same. A vote from Indian Country, at least measured by representation, is only one-third of one percent. And that is even less so in the Electoral College because the ballots are cast state by state and are not awarded by congressional district (except in Maine and Nebraska).
Then as bad as the Electoral College is … the Senate is worse. Warren’s place in politics is a democratic aberration. A voter in Wyoming has 70 times more say about the country’s future than a citizen of California. Seventy times! When you think of the diversity in a country of 325 million, what kind of democracy allows a small rural state to have far more power than those states that are more reflective of the country and its population?
President Donald J. Trump was a longtime critic of the Electoral College until he won because of that very structural imbalance. “It’s like training for the 100 yard dash vs. a marathon. The brilliance of the Electoral College is that you must go to many States to win,” Trump tweeted. “With the Popular Vote, you go to just the large States - the Cities would end up running the Country. Smaller States & the entire Midwest would end up losing all power - & we can’t let that happen.”
But it's not an either, or. There are alternatives. The rest of the world already uses other systems of governance, systems that recognize the value of every citizen having a voice in the democratic process.
Take New Zealand. Many have been struck by the leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as she and her government responded to an act of terror. Looking at that government action is also worth considering the political structure of New Zealand.
Maori have guaranteed representation in Parliament that started in 1867. In addition, that country switched from a district based system like the U.S. House in 1993 to mixed member proportional representation. This increases the broad representation in Parliament.
Since the mixed member proportional system began “Maori representation in Parliament has remained at least proportional to the Maori share of the national population,” writes Dominic O'Sullivan, an associate professor at Charles Sturt University in Australia. “The Maori party advocated for greater tribal authority while in government. Maori voters will expect that advocacy to continue given they largely believe full citizenship is not realized through the state alone. In short, Maori people and policy influence New Zealand politics in ways that First Nations in Canada do not.”
And it’s the same could be said in the United States.
What would proportional representation look like? Amber Ebarb, Tlingit, of the National Congress of American Indians has run the numbers. She calculates proportional representation would equal at least two members of the U.S. Senate and seven members in the U.S. House of Representatives.
That is what representative democracy looks like.
Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports
(Indian Country Today, LLC., is a non-profit news organization owned by the non-profit arm of the The National Congress of American Indians. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently.)