US Elections: What is Letting Democracy Down

Published: Tue 14 Nov 2000 10:35 AM
David Miller Online. The US Presidential Elections: What is Letting Democracy Down.
For many people the situation following the United States Presidential race has been marked by a sense of bewilderment as to why a week later there still is no decisive outcome from the vote. For others there is a sense of frustration at the ongoing delays and recounts and towards the lawsuits now being filed concerning the results in certain parts of the country. For the rest, boredom is beginning to set in. After a year of primaries to select each party’s candidates, endless campaigning, televised debates and last Tuesday’s vote, which candidate will be the next President is still not known.
The 2000 Presidential election has shown Americans that the course of democracy does not always run along a smooth path. This is highlighted by the fact that in the national popular vote Democratic candidate and Vice President Al Gore is ahead of Republican rival and Texas Governor George W. Bush, who in turn has won more states than Mr Gore in the Electoral College. It is however, the Electoral College process, which will decide the 43rd President depending upon which candidate emerges from this debacle with the most votes.
The United States government and people have always placed the value of democracy above all others. Throughout American history this has been cherished, with the principles of the freedom of speech and one- man one- vote being the cornerstones upon which the nation was built. However to those who believe that for democracy to function one candidate must receive more votes than their opponent to be the victor then the process in the United States has fallen short.
The Electoral College is a complicated system and the element to the US political structure that has come under criticism and scrutiny amidst the debacle that has followed last Tuesday’s vote. The Electoral College system was established during the founding of the United States and is enshrined in Article 2 of the Constitution. It is comprised of a body of electors from each state equal in number to that of the total representatives each state has in Congress, plus two. Hence a state with two representatives gains four College votes, while a state with twenty- three representatives gains twenty- five votes. Once the votes are counted throughout each state on a plurality basis, the Electoral College votes are then cast in favour of a particular candidate based on that result. This could not only allow Mr Bush to win the Electoral College, despite being second in the national popular vote, but also tends to over- represent the less populated states. It is unlikely, even amidst the growing chorus of those calling for this system to be reformed that it will be changed, as it is unlikely that the smaller states will want to relinquish the disproportionate power this allows them.
Until this election, the people of the United States have remained content with the system they have in electing their political leaders. Not since John F. Kennedy’s narrow victory over Richard Nixon in 1960 has there been such uncertainty in a Presidential election outcome. Over the past three decades the successful candidate was known before the final count was completed and this complacency among the American voters has meant that there has been little reason to question the electoral system. However Americans have been shaken from this complacency due the events of the past week and now do not appear so content with the process by which their leaders are elected. This is even reached the point of asking whether democracy in the United States is flawed.
Democracy in the United States is not flawed due to the nature of this election. No system, which claims to be democratic, will satisfy all of those who are eligible to vote and will be open to criticism at some level. In any system, such as that in the United States, the Westminster system or the proportional representation process adopted by New Zealand, voter dissatisfaction at the result and irregularities will feature. This does not mean that the system is defective or that democracy has failed. What is letting Americans down is the threat of legal action that now hangs over the ballot and the possibility that even after the result of the recounting is known, neither candidate will admit defeat. Such actions on the part of either candidate can only lead to further instability for the country and widen the partisan divide.
Perhaps it is time that the Electoral College system was reviewed and altered to reflect the results of the nationwide ballot, and it will be another four years before those voters who claim to have voted incorrectly due to the butterfly style ballot paper will have a chance to rectify their error, but the fact that it is increasingly likely that the courts will decide who follows Bill Clinton into the White House is what will let democracy in the United States down.
As one observer in the United States put it, “the outcome is that half of the electorate will end up feeling happy, but with a bad taste in their mouths, and the other half will be unhappy with a bad taste in their mouths”. Whatever the result due to the actions of the candidates and their campaigns over the past week, those feeling unhappy are growing in numbers and as a result democracy has suffered a loss of faith in the United States.

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