The U.S. is not a pure democracy. This isn’t Ancient Athens. We the people don’t take a bus down to D.C. every time a piece of legislation needs an up-or-down vote. Our representatives do that for us. That’s what makes us a republic.
In a republic, democracy has its limits. Unlike a pure democracy, republics don’t make decisions purely by majority rule. As James Madison argued in Federalist Paper #10, a system in which the majority always wins means that people of minority groups or opinions—no matter how wise or just their cause—will always be vulnerable to the prejudices of an “unjust and interested majority.” For this reason, our government employs various measures for the protection of minority rights—like requiring supermajorities for constitutional amendments, or the fact that all legislative decisions are made by a small group of 535 legislators “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of the country.”
Also, unlike a pure democracy, our system of federalism ensures protections for the rights of states, particularly by preserving a level of representative equality between states regardless of their population. This is best reflected in the structure of the Senate, which unlike the House, does not consider population when allocating representation, helping to head off some of the dominance experienced by smaller states at the hands of larger ones. This also carries over to our Electoral College, and helps to explain how a small state like Wyoming with only 3 electoral votes (1 vote per ≈ 192,920 people) actually has greater proportional representation than a large state like California with 55 (1 vote per ≈ 718,404 people).
I don’t want a pure democracy. In a republic, democracy is a question of degree, and for the most part, I think our system has appropriate checks on many of the most harmful impulses of democratic government. However, I also believe that our republic isn’t democratic enough. It’s never been democratic enough. We have never lived in a country where the true voice of the people—ALL the people—has been adequately reflected in our elected leaders. Which is why I think that with their newfound power, the big-D Democrats in Congress and the White House should make it their most important priority to inject more small-d democracy into our democratic republic.
For many, this project starts with the Electoral College. Democratic candidates have won the popular vote in five of the six presidential elections that have taken place this century, but have only won the presidency in three of those elections. That’s a problem, and if not for less than 50,000 combined votes in the states of Arizona, Wisconsin, and Georgia, it would have happened again in 2020, despite the fact that even in that scenario, Joe Biden would have still won the popular vote by over 7 million.
I wouldn’t protest against the abolition of the Electoral College, but when it comes to potential democratic reforms, it’s not at the top of my list. One reason for that is I’m not entirely opposed on principle to an electoral system that values some equality between the states. After all, as a Minnesotan, I actually live in one of the states whose voice is slightly augmented as a result of that system. Another reason is that due to its need for a constitutional amendment in which ratification requires approval from ¾ of the states, the abolition of the Electoral College seems pretty unlikely.
Instead, what seems more possible is not abolishing the Electoral College, but adjusting the way we use it. For example, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is an agreement that already exists between a significant number of states to reward their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner, no matter who wins the vote within those individual states. If enough states were to sign on to this compact—more than 270 electoral votes worth—it would effectively eliminate the ability of the Electoral College to award the presidency to the popular vote loser.
Another solution that is probably less practical but to me more appealing is replacing the winner-take-all system of the Electoral College for one that allocates electoral votes proportionately. This means that rather than all of the electoral votes being allocated to the popular vote winner within a given state, the electoral votes would instead be allocated based on the proportion of the vote that each candidate received. Rather than being the swing states that decided the presidential election, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Georgia would have split their electoral votes equally between the two candidates (6-5 in Arizona since it has an odd number). Donald Trump would have won electoral votes in New York, Joe Biden would have won electoral votes in Mississippi, and in states with the largest number of electors like Texas and California, it’s possible that even Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgenson could have picked up an electoral vote or two. This system would not eliminate the possibility of the popular vote winner being the Electoral College loser, but it does seem that it would make it less likely, particularly in situations like our two most recent presidential elections in which the Democratic margin of victory was in the millions.
But regardless of what happens with the Electoral College, there are other more practical and principled measures that Democrats should be pursuing to enhance and protect democratic participation, and that starts with making sure that all people are represented.
In 2016, D.C. voters overwhelmingly approved the measure to turn Washington D.C. into the state of New Columbia, and there is literally no good reason not to grant them that wish. There are plenty of bullshit reasons that Republicans will certainly espouse should this debate be revisited in Congress, but at the end of the day, the only reason that Republicans don’t want D.C. to become a state is because it will result in three relatively safe Democratic seats in Congress (one in the House, and more importantly, two in the Senate).
But politics aside, granting statehood to D.C. is the democratic thing for a democratic republic to do. This country was founded on the idea of “no taxation without representation”, a principle not reflected in D.C.’s current arrangement, as their license plates will happily remind you. What is more, D.C. has a higher population than both Wyoming and Vermont, and in spite of its absurdly high median income, also has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, which uncoincidentally corresponds with the fact that its population is nearly 50% black. I don’t know about you, but if there’s anyone to whom I do feel comfortable denying congressional representation, it’s not poor people from a historically marginalized group.
The situation with Puerto Rican statehood is a bit murkier. While Puerto Rico doesn’t suffer from the same constitutional hang-ups (also bullshit) that D.C. does, I personally would not feel comfortable pushing for Puerto Rican statehood without more democratic input from the people of Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans already voted to approve statehood in a 2020 referendum, but participation was extremely low (only 23%), and there’s reason to believe that was due in part to the fact that what Puerto Ricans really want is not statehood, but independence. Either way, democratic self-determination is the solution, and if it were to become clear that Congress would act on the results of a free and fair election to determine Puerto Rico’s political future, perhaps Puerto Ricans would show up at their polling places to make that decision once and for all.
Some say that focusing on statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico is a waste of legislative energy, as Senate Republicans would almost certainly use another tool of the minority—the filibuster—to block any action seeking to add another star to the flag. However, there is an interesting argument that because statehood is not really a legislative matter, the filibuster should not apply. Ironically, it would be the Republicans themselves who opened this can of worms when they changed the filibuster rules a few years back to push through Trump’s judicial appointments. Either way Democrats should push the conversation in Congress, because even if Republicans are successful in their endeavors to deny representation to unrepresented Americans, they’re going to look terrible doing it.
Lastly, in addition to working to extend representation to those who don’t currently have it, it is equally important for Democrats to secure the rights of those who do, particularly their right to choose who represents them. Voter suppression in this country is as old as the vote itself. The methods have changed, but the targets—predominately poor people of color—have remained the same. Literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and poll taxes have been replaced with things like registration restrictions, voter purges, and felony disenfranchisement—all written in race-neutral language, but all with the same effect (and in many cases intent) of preventing some of the nation’s most marginalized people from being able to vote to change the system that marginalizes them.
Legislation already exists to address these issues. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act proposes a replacement for the recently expired Voting Rights Act of 1965, and would force state and local jurisdictions with a history of voting rights violations to seek federal approval for any changes to their voting requirements, particularly if those requirements would effectively result in racial discrimination. The For the People Act is another example of ready-made legislation geared towards combating some of the modern-day voter suppression tactics mentioned above, and facilitating elections that are fair, equitable, and accessible for all.
It is undeniable that when it comes to winning elections and controlling our government, the reforms mentioned above would tip the scales dramatically in favor of the Democratic Party. Altering or abolishing the Electoral College would eliminate a significant Republican advantage, statehood to D.C. or Puerto would add reliable Democratic seats in both houses of Congress, and protecting or encouraging the vote of the historically disenfranchised would inevitably mean more voters voting for Democratic candidates. But the reason to do these reforms is not to help the Democratic Party. The reason to do them is democracy.
When we look back on significant reforms that extended democratic participation to more people, we don’t mourn the partisan casualties. We don’t feel sorry for racist politicians after the Civil War who struggled to win support from newly enfranchised black voters, or candidates that lost elections after the ratification of the 19th amendment because they failed to win the votes of enough women. We celebrate these reforms for the people they empowered. We celebrate these reforms because they made our republic more democratic.
It won’t be possible to separate these reform attempts from the partisan politics of the day. Republicans will certainly frame this as a Democratic power-grab, and technically, they won’t be wrong. But if the Republicans can only win the White House through an Electoral College system that denies victory to the popular vote winner, perhaps they don’t deserve the presidency. If Republicans can only be competitive for Congressional control through denial of representation, partisan gerrymandering, and modern-day voter suppression tactics, then perhaps Republicans shouldn’t control Congress. And if securing democratic participation for more people makes it more difficult for Republicans to win elections, perhaps they should consider why their policies struggle to attract the young, the poor, and people of color. Rather than whining about another partisan power-grab from “radical” Democrats, perhaps Republicans should take a long look in the mirror, and instead figure out a way to win elections in a country that actually takes small-d democracy seriously.