Why winner takes all democracy isn’t democracy at all

Despite the fact that I pay closer attention to the news than most, like most Americans I’m hopelessly ignorant about the politics in the rest of the world. As such, I really don’t have anything intelligent to say about Mexico’s electoral crisis and it’s final resolution a few days ago, at least as it pertains to Mexico. Watching the resentment displayed by the losing side in Mexico though has, in my ethnocentric way, given me an insight into American politics.

No one will really know who won in Mexico. Like Florida in 2000, the Washington State Governor’s race in 2004, and to a lesser extent Ohio in 2004, the margin was easily small enough that some overzealous election workers could, and likely did, swing the result one way or the other.

The result is a contentious, emotional, caustic dispute. The side that won feels it’s supported by popular will, while the side that lost feels disenfranchised. When all the power goes to half the country, it’s no surprise that the system breeds such polarization, resentment, and corruption.

Here’s the problem: Anyone who gets 50.1% of the vote, gets 100% of the power. Conversely, the guy who gets 49.9% of the vote gets 0% of the power. It’s not difficult to understand the anger people feel given these stakes, it’s all or nothing, the victor gets the spoils. This is a systemic problem with dire consequences. The people who voted for the loser are right to feel disenfranchised because, quite frankly, it’s disenfranchising. Their opinions aren’t heard, their interests aren’t served, their voices are subjugated by a majority that’s only marginally larger, if their victory was legitimate at all.

Looking at the US right now, we seem to have taken this systemic flaw to its extreme. Most of the time, the disproportionate power allocation afforded to electoral winners is mitigated by wide victory margins and having the minority party in control of at least one of the House, Senate, or Presidency. Currently though, we have one party rule with a President who won under contentious circumstances the first time, only to be re-elected by a slim margin (with huge sentiment against him), and is acting as if he has a “mandate” to pursue his agenda despite the fact his approval ratings now sit in the low 30’s. The opposition party (the Democrats, in this case), wield no real power in the House or Senate despite controlling 40+% of both.

Because of the way our government is set up, Bush only has to serve the interests of 51% of the population. The same would be true if a Democrat were in charge; both parties serve the center of their base rather than the center of the country, and absolutely no one tries to represent the whole country and balance the interests thereof.

I’ve proposed a solution to this before, a reform to our voting system based upon game theory that would select the most centrist candidates rather than the most polarizing (reposted below this post). However, such a drastic overhaul is unlikely to happen anytime soon (if ever), and reform is needed now. So I’ll propose two modest solutions here, designed to distribute power in a more proportionate way to the way to the will of the electorate.

My first solution would be to have the runner up in any Presidential contest get the VP position. There’s a risk in this, as it further entrenches the two party system; but since that seems to be a fact of life anyway, at least it means that 90% of voters will be represented in the executive branch, and might even encourage some more bipartisanship than we see today.

The other solution is to change the way Congress works. Currently, the majority party is also the majority in every congressional committee and holds every committee chair. They set the agenda and decide what legislation ever sees a vote. The adjustment I would make is to give parties control of a proportionate number of committees to seats held in Congress; a party with 49% of the seats should control 49% of the committees (This also means that a third party would actually have a chance to control a committee without having to win 218 seats).

Naturally I don’t expect either of these changes to come about any time soon; the powers that be have nothing to gain from sharing that power. But until we do get some major changes to the system, I don’t think it’s fair to call what we have any sort of democracy.

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