Monday, November 12, 2012

Who Really won the American Election?

Everyone is excited or upset that Obama won the American presidency.  We are starting to appreciate that the thing that upset voters the most, congressional gridlock still is a highly likely outcome as the House of Representatives will still be controlled by the Republicans.  The Senate is still able to stymie Democratic initiatives.

The Americans have a system that was the result of compromise.  The smaller states were reluctant to join with the bigger states fearing they would be overwhelmed.  The slave issue was also a big concern to the southern States.  The result was the two house system and the electoral college.  The House of Representatives is voted on every two years and is supposed to be a reflection of the whole population and is given budgeting powers.  The Senate members are voted for six year terms, two per state regardless of size and are staggered so that there is more continuity which is more appropriate to the the body of sober opinion and given right of cabinet approval and treaties.  The rules enabled the Republicans to cut off votes on issues even though they barely had 40 members in the 100 member Senate.

As I write this, it is difficult to get totally accurate figures, but it appears that the Republicans will control the House of Representatives by a margin somewhere near 234 to 193.  However other figures from previous days show that the Democrats candidates won more votes than their Republican counter parts.

Gerrymandering undoubtedly had an effect.  One of goals of the governing power at the state level is to determine the boundary lines for the Congressional representatives.  Both parties have a history of reshaping the boundaries for their own benefit.  Boundary lines were decided after the 2010 elections.  It does seem that where the Republicans control which is the majority of states at the moment the boundary lines will favor them.  Furthermore the voters often don't bother to vote if they know the odds are stacked against their preferred candidate.

In the end if the wishes of the people are overwhelming it should be reflected in the overall outcome, but it is more complicated again.  What complicates the outcome again is money.  The average voter has more immediate concerns than who wins an election, while other people have a great deal of interest as it affect their ability to maintain and increase their large amount of wealth.  With modern technology and money they are able to manipulate a lot to their advantage.  Marketing plays a big role with psychological insights..

Another advantage of controlling state governments is the right to determine many of the voting procedures.  Here in Ontario I worked a polling booth and as part of my training I was surprised to learn how determined they are to encourage everyone to  vote.  For handicapped people they have a lot of suggestions to help.  Even people with different mental concerns (like agorophobia) are encouraged to vote.

In United States in many areas it is realized that most poor people and most minorities vote Democrat.  As  many have jobs and limited resources merely by limiting their accessibility much of their power is eroded.  This last election was noted for very long waits to vote with some people giving up and not bothering.  Other people are not able to obtain acceptable proof of their identity and thus lose their right to vote.

Many people complained that they didn't like either party while others counseled that the election was too important to waste on a third party.  A two party system causes a few problems.  Each party has a policy on each issue, but some of the policies are really intended to rope in voters who otherwise would not vote for them.  In United States, the Republicans have added policies to appeal to people concerned about social issues that will vote against their own economic self interests.  Big money Republicans have found this an effective strategy to give a good run for political power.

In a multi party system this is more difficult.  A third party is focused on some specific issues and is easily recognized for their concern.  The other parties can focus on what their core interests really are.  Why doesn't this happen in the US?  First it costs too much money to set up a viable party, not only for the marketing, but also to fufil government regulations at the state level.  Second there is a real feeling that a third party vote is truly wasted.  In Canada and Ontario this feeling often gets translated to strategic voting where a voter will choose the lesser of two evils rather than their real choice. Third and even fourth and fifth parties sometimes do have power in Canada to modify policy decisions and are able to express their viewpoints.

The answer to my headline question is really the gerrymanderers.  The voters do not have the best choice.  The system will not change easily, but it is my hope that people will realize there are better systems and they can exercise power to help bring us to them.

The American election with their two party system helps me realize that proportional voting helps give people better choices.  In the United States one application would be at the state level where the number of representatives is set.  The voting could easily be proportional, within the state although there might be tricky arithmetic calculations at the margins that would have to be dealt with.  By itself it might allow a third party to sneak in.  The electoral college could be adapted from the winner takes all used by most states to a more proportional result in line with the voters' preference.

Two other problems are the role of money and the role of political parties in setting the rules.

Money encourages favoritism.  If one entity (read rich person or corporation) can help a political party they almost always expect something in return, even if it is merely accessibility.  We will never escape the necessity of a candidate to market themselves, but it could be simplified.  Unfortunately the people that can legally change the role of money got their power with financial power.  Laws restricting the role of money would help present a less distorted vision to voters.

Canada and its provinces have separated political parties from the election process.  If nothing else this gives more credibility to the results.   Without kowtowing to political parties the election boards can do more to make it easier for everyone to vote.  It is not perfect but far better than letting a political party control voting rules.

Democratic deficits which I recall first hearing from Paul Martin can be rectified in the future, but it will not be volunteered by those now in power.  The idea of a better system has to come from the masses.  We must educate ourselves and bring our concerns to the public.  Politicians cannot ignore legitimate concerns if there is enough public demand.

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