5 Ways U.S. Democracy Is More Rigged Than You Think
None of you are naive or think government works exactly the way you learned it in elementary school. We all know there are backroom deals and bribes and blackmail and probably, like, orgies and shit behind the scenes.
But what many people don't realize is that the most unfair and outright broken parts of the system we have in the USA aren't a result of people breaking the law. No, the craziest, most overtly bullshit practices are perfectly legal. That's why ...
Your Congressional Representative Has Already Been Chosen for You
Here's how neatly the House of Representatives works on paper: For every certain number of U.S. citizens, there is a congressional district. The people in each congressional district elect a representative. If you didn't know any better, you might think that these districts were arranged in a simple grid or something -- small squares in areas with dense populations, large ones for sparsely populated rural areas. But instead, it looks like this:
District borders are even more ridiculous than state borders.
Yes, these districts are an insane tangle of convoluted shapes that resembles the last game of Tetris you see right before your Game Boy's circuit board dies. So is this all just really sloppy mapmaking? Was the district map drawn by a man with a Sharpie clenched between his butt cheeks?
Nope. Some of you who know this politics stuff recognize this as gerrymandering -- the trick by which parties game the system to keep their people in power. What you may not realize is how profoundly this utterly thwarts everything the system is supposed to be.
As a result of this border fuckery, U.S. congressional elections are among the most uncompetitive in the world. In 2000, a whopping 98 percent of congressional seats were held by incumbents. That makes congressional races roughly as competitive (and fair) as rigged dictatorial elections.
That's because these tangled districts are all about making sure it is nearly impossible for most congressional seats to change parties. See, nowhere in the rulebook does it say exactly how the districts must be drawn, as long as they're connected. So, the party in power simply finds all of the most loyal voters on the map and draws the district around them. That's how we wind up with the complete madness that is Illinois District 4:
Yes, all of the green is one single district.
That Rorschach Test of a district was formed by grabbing a group of housing units in the north, snaking its way through some abandoned freight yards and along the highway, and finally snagging another populated area in the south. The result of this gerrymandering is that the district is one of the most reliably Democratic in the nation.
In Texas, Republicans have rigged the district system to their favor so efficiently that the state government openly and freely brags about the fact that Democrats are screwed if they ever want to get elected there. The same goes for Florida, where the party vote is virtually split down the middle, yet Republicans hold the vast majority of congressional seats. Here, just gaze into the mouth of madness that now passes for the U.S. congressional district map:
Count how many districts aren't deep red or deep blue. We'll wait; it won't take long.
Now let's take it a step further: If you're a congressman and you and your colleagues are supporting a piece of legislation that is deeply unpopular even in your home state, well, who gives a shit? You don't have to watch the polls, because you know you're going to get re-elected anyway -- you're from a district that has been drawn to only include people who always vote for your party, no matter what. So why worry about what the rest of the population thinks? And more importantly, why ever compromise or cooperate in order to actually get things passed?
The Two Controlling Parties Actively Sabotage Their Competition
In Italy, there are 13 different parties in the parliament. In France, 14. And in the country that frequently toots its horn as the land of freedom and democracy, there are ... the Democrats and the Republicans. Everyone else is on the fringe and can barely win a race for small town mayor.
Another year, another loss for Candidate Smith and the Viable Solutions Party.
What's up with that shit? Wouldn't a 10-plus party system give a much more diverse set of choices to represent what the people want, as opposed to forcing everyone into a binary system where being against abortion means you have to vote for a party that is also against labor unions (or vice versa)? Well, see, here's the problem ...
Guess who gets to decide if you can have a third party. That would be the existing two parties, who, as you can imagine, really don't want the competition.
That's because, along with everything else, the current two parties in the USA are also in charge of setting the rules for ballot access for third parties. As such, these rules are roughly as fair as a cage match between a toddler with particularly large ears and a hungry Mike Tyson. Take Carl Romanelli of Pennsylvania. He wanted to run for a congressional seat as a member of the Green Party. Under the rules enforced by the major parties, Republicans and Democrats needed 2,000 signatures to attain ballot access and be allowed into the election. Romanelli, on the other hand, was cheerfully informed he would need slightly more. How slightly? Try 67,000. Shockingly, he didn't make it.
He submitted 100,000 signatures. Democrats successfully challenged 42 percent of them.
Meanwhile, in Georgia, a third-party candidate must attain 5 percent of all registered voters' signatures just to be allowed to run. Although that might not sound like a lot, if a third party wants to run for, say, governor, that's approximately 250,000 signatures. As a result, a grand total of zero third-party candidates have managed to make it on the ballot for the House of Representatives since the law was changed to its current form in 1943.
However, the taker of the "Fuck you, third parties" cake is without a doubt Oklahoma, a state that doesn't even bother listing third-party presidential candidates. Why would they? They've already got all the candidates they need, sonny boy.
The Government Can Kill Any Court Case by Claiming It's a State Secret
As is the case with any superpower, the U.S. has secrets that are ridiculously sensitive: What do they really do at Area 51? Can the presidential limo survive a blast from a rocket launcher? What's the nation's zombie contingency plan? Keeping secrets is a necessity, and it always will be as long as there are bad guys in the world.
We may never truly defeat all the alien terrorist zombies.
But here's the big question: If the people aren't allowed to see the secrets, who decides what is and is not considered a secret? In other words, who's to say that the government won't do something embarrassing or illegal and then avoid scrutiny by saying, "Sorry, that's a state secret!" You know, like if someone were to sue the government, could they just declare all of the evidence a state secret and walk away?
Meet the state secrets privilege, the government's official "get out of jail" card. It can be pulled out any time the president damn well likes in order to protect the things his administration deems secret. When the privilege is called, the case is immediately dropped ... no questions asked. Now, again, we can totally understand the use of a policy like this: For instance, terrorists don't need to be told that the government knows where they're hiding. Sadly, you don't get this kind of power without abusing it.
Power corrupts; absolute power [redacted].
The privilege's high profile recognition hails from a McCarthy-era lawsuit in 1953, when a B-29 crashed and killed the crew on board. Three widows tried to sue the government over their deaths, but the case was thrown out when the government stated that revealing some of the evidence would be damaging to national security and invoked the privilege. Fifty years later, researchers uncovered said "dangerous" evidence and found out that the only thing it would have damaged was the government's own ass. They were just covering up for their own negligence that ultimately caused the crash.
The post-9/11 world has seen the privilege on the table more than ever, and the reasons are often just as sketchy. The George W. Bush administration used it many times to insta-kill civil cases that challenged the more pungent aspects of the war on terror. If you were a victim of Bush's secret eavesdropping program, too bad -- your only legal right is to watch the telecom companies you sued for ruining your life waltzing away scot-free, thanks to the state secrets privilege. The Obama administration seems to be a big fan of the tactic as well.
Stop hounding him! Copyright law is totally a matter of national security.
The state secrets privilege has recently been under pretty heavy fire from the courts and Congress alike. Still, it's hard to see it revoked any time in the near future. After all, how can you prove that a rule has been used incorrectly when your opponent can just say, "No, it hasn't" -- and then end the discussion by applying said rule?
And while we're talking about the courts ...
Who Decides if the Supreme Court Has a Conflict of Interest? They Do
At the very end of this whole process in the U.S. you have the Supreme Court. Congress can pass a law, and the president can sign it, but if the Supremes decide it is unconstitutional, it's dead. So the idea is that, regardless of all of the political chicanery that might get bad people elected and bad legislation passed, these nine impartial judges, the greatest legal minds of their time, are able to keep things from going too wrong.
"A law letting the government quarter soldiers in American homes? That sounds above board."
As you can imagine, this means these judges have to abide by an incredibly strict set of ethical standards: For instance, they must recuse themselves from presiding over cases if they have a conflict of interest (like if they stood to personally gain or lose a bunch of money based on a ruling). For all of the lower judges in the system, this code of conduct is enforced by the higher courts -- from the lowliest backwater judge all the way up to the judges directly under the Supreme Court, everyone has someone watching over them.
But hey, who's watching the top dog judges on the Supreme Court?
Sadly, they don't combine into a giant justice Voltron to enforce the code. It's up to each individual judge to decide on their own whether they have a conflict of interest. Of course, if a Supreme Court justice clearly has a conflict of interest but fails to step down from the case, the consequences are dire ... and by "dire," we of course mean "nonexistent." There are no consequences. Legally, no one else is required to give a shit.
Even the Galactic Court is powerless. America denies its authority.
Luckily, the Supreme Court judges are people of extremely good moral standing. It's not like they'd preside over a case argued by a partner at their law firm, or take a case they have personally worked on and publicly said should be dismissed, or go on a hunting trip with the subject of their case.
The Minority Party Can Keep Anything from Getting Done
Yeah, you really can't talk about what's broken in the American system without talking about the filibuster.
If you've ever taken a civics class or finished reading this sentence, you know that passing bills in the U.S. Senate is fairly simple -- get the majority of 51 votes behind you, and BOOM! Legislation. That's the theory, anyway. In reality, a single senator can hold up legislation with a filibuster, a "pirate" move (that's literally the word's origin) where the floor is hogged with a marathon speech that keeps the Senate from voting on the issue.
For example, Senator Blackheart from Florida used this move to defeat SOPA.
Basically, a long time ago somebody noticed that down in the fine print of the Senate's rules it said that, sure, you only need 51 of the 100 votes to get something passed, but you need 60 votes in order to hold the vote at all -- the separate vote to say, "OK, we're done debating this, let's hold the vote." So if your party only holds 41 seats -- like if, say, most of the country supports the other party -- all you need is one member to say, "Hey, I'm not done debating this, and to prove it, I'll just stand up here and talk until we all keel over from starvation."
So in the old days they would literally stand up there and keep talking, forever, whether they achieved this by singing or reciting oyster recipes. It's no mean feat of endurance, and it came to be recognized as the absolute last-ditch effort to stop legislation that the majority of the elected senators approve of.
Well, they could also shut the whole government down. But that chance only comes every so often.
Today there is a thing called silent filibuster, a handy way to prevent more work in less time. It's essentially just a threat of a filibuster -- one that can conveniently be sent in via email if the senator in question is feeling particularly lazy. No days-long speaking marathons, no impassioned speeches by defiant senators on the verge of collapse from exhaustion. What used to be a rare, eleventh-hour effort by the minority party has become routine, to the point that now almost all legislation is held up by it at one point or another.
So once again -- the people go to the polls and elect representatives. The majority supports X, so those representatives create legislation to pass X. But because of this loophole, the minority can stop it cold. They don't even have to argue their views, as with a normal filibuster; they can just type a sternly worded letter, click "send," and watch the bill die. It's like a cheat code, only instead of letting you win, it crashes the game.
Here's a handy graph to show how often this is suddenly being used:
So if the bar representing uses of this blocking tactic is getting longer, what would it look like if we had bars showing the number of bills actually getting passed? Well, the Pew Research Center has made one:
Whether this is bad for democracy depends on whether you think the government should actually, you know, do things.
While the party getting their legislation blocked screams about how unfair it is, their screaming stops the very moment they are in the minority and want to use the tactic themselves. This is why you can't get dirty tricks written out of the rules -- ultimately, both sides want to reserve the right to pull the same tricks themselves down the road. Which, we suppose, kind of sums up the problem with everything.
Related Reading: Democracy is broken. If you need more proof, check out these petitions. And while we're near the subject, let's talk election myths. Did you know angry partisan rhetoric ISN'T at an all-time high? The holidays are coming up. So before you start any relationship-ruining arguments with your family, read this.