When the US constitutional republic was established a serious attempt was made to ensure that the government was properly regulated. Checks and balances were put in place to ensure that no branch of government wielded too much authority. These, in theory, would ensure that the government would continue to operate even if any part of it fell to corruption. The system fails in practice when every branch of government becomes corrupted. This is the case with the US government today.
We will not go into detail with all of the minutiae of the US government, but rather on its general structure, some comparisons to the Australian governmental structure, and a few areas of interest to set up the remainder of this chapter. Like Australia the US governmental structure is divided into federal, state and local governments.
At the federal level
The US federal senate consists of 100 members, which each state assigning two. This represents an enormous concentration of authority, with one senator for every 3.2 million people on average, but the ratio is much more varied when the proportion is examined state by state. For the state with the largest population (California) there is one senator for every 20 million people and for the state with the smallest population (Wyoming) there is one for every 300 thousand people. Note that the senator-voter ratio for just the smallest US state is comparable with the Australian national average, which has one senator for every 316 thousand people. This is a factor of ten better than the US national average. Continuing the comparison with Australia, in California we have the entire population of Australia represented by only two senators. Like Australia, the term of a US senator is six years with no term limits. The senate has the authority to ratify treaties, confirm cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court justices, federal court judges and other federal officials. It is presided over by the Vice President, who also has the authority to cast the deciding vote on cases where there is a 50-50 split vote. Since the Vice President is appointed by the President, one can see the clear political advantage of having the president and senate controlled by the same party.
The Federal House of Representatives has the authority to pass federal legislation, called bills, which is why they are often referred to as “lawmakers”. Both the upper and lower houses are needed to pass legislation and the president has the authority to veto. There are 435 voting members of the House of Representatives and, unlike the Senate, the number of Representatives per state is intended to be assigned according to population. So California currently returns 53 members while Wyoming returns one. States are divided into electoral districts, with one member for each. The borders of the districts are redrawn with each US census, which in theory is intended to ensure that districts continue to represent the population equally, but in practice is exploited to create heavy bias towards whichever party is in power when the census is conducted. This is called gerrymandering and is much more commonly used to rig elections in favour of Republicans, but the Democrats are not completely guilt-free in this practice. In Pennsylvania, for example, Republicans control 72% of the seats despite the fact that 50% of voters in the state voted for the Democrats. There will be more on gerrymandering in a later blog but the reader might be interested in reading about some recent developments on this here.
Gerrymandering in Australia
Gerrymandering is a problem in Australia as well, and its consequences also favour the less popular right wing parties. The causes for it are different to the US, however. In Australia the problem is not with district boundaries, but rather because of the disregard of party preference nationwide. In Australia, priority is given to having someone from your local area representing you rather than having your representative being from the Party that you represent. This article cites the example of the National Party, suggesting that because National voters are concentrated in only a few key electorates, rather than distributed across the country, they end up with more seats than the proportion of the population who support them says that they should. Conversely, the Green Party, which has its voters distributed across the country, control fewer seats than their popularity says that they should. As this article illustrates, in the example of the 2013 Federal election, only 45% Australians chose the Liberal Party as their first preference and yet they ended up with 60% of the seats. Conversely, minor parties and independents received just over 21% of primary votes but ended up with just 3% of the seats.
At the state and local levels
State and Local governments serve as microgovernments within the larger government infrastructure. They are not “sovereign” in the sense that they are autonomous to the federal government, but rather govern their regions under a certain set of guidelines. States are responsible for roads, education, revenue collection, and the judicial system, while local governments are responsible for district attorneys, police, school districts, and service delivery. Every state except Nebraska has an Upper and Lower House, which are all subject to regular elections. The head of the executive branch of each state is the governor, who is elected to serve for four years. For some strange reason governor elections are called gubernatorial elections. Local governments can be County, Town or City, or Municipal.
Elections are held in the US every year. Presidential elections are held every four years, which includes elections for upper and lower house seats at the federal and state levels, along with local elections. Similar elections are held the second year after the presidential; these are called mid-terms. Most gubernatorial (state governor) elections occur during mid-term elections. Elections are also held in the first and third years; these are called off-year elections. Off-year elections generally do not involve Senate or House seats but they do involve a few gubernatorial places. Local elections change from county to country but it is very common for district attorneys, sheriffs, commissioners, treasurers, coroners and clerks of the court to be assigned by election (this post provides a list of common officers subject to election). Like Australia, cities will elect their mayor and city council members, but with the US, of course, there is an insidious underbelly. Many city councils are inseparably linked with the Chamber of Commerce, which is an anti-labour pro-corporation entity that is there to ensure that no city provides for the needs of its residents at the expense of corporate profits. In many cities the Town Hall and Chamber of Commerce are the same building.
The Australian electoral system runs on a compulsory preferential system, where second, third, etc preferences continue down the ballot until a single candidate acquires more than 50% of the total vote. In the US, the person with the most votes wins regardless of how much of a percentage of the total vote they have. Like Australia, the US is plagued with private funding for elections. The rules governing public financing are more strict in Australia, whereas the US has effectively legalised bribery. The end result is the same in both countries: widespread corruption. More on that in later posts.
A consequence of annual elections is that elected officials are never given an opportunity to actually govern. Instead, they are in a state of permanent campaign. In a functioning democracy this might involve meeting with constituents and identifying what they need and how to provide it, but in an oligarchy like the US it involves spending the vast majority of the time fundraising. Elected officials are known to spend 6-8 hours of their working day telemarketing for donations. In an interview to 60 Minutes, Florida Congressman David Jolly claimed that he was required to raise $18,000 per day and that this was to be his top priority. It is illegal for Congressmen to make such calls from their office, so they typically use call centres that have been set up a few blocks away.
Unlike in Australia, voting is not compulsory in the US. This creates an opportunity for further election rigging, as the ruling classes continually come up with ways to remove people not likely to vote for them from the electoral roles without their knowledge or consent. Common tricks include the scrapping of mail-in ballots, the removal of names that sound like convicted felons (this was one of the scams used to steal the 2000 presidential election), the closing of voting stations from poor neighbourhoods, and the requirement of expensive paperwork to be allowed to vote. There will be more on electoral rigging in a later post but the reader might be interested in Greg Palast’s investigation into the matter. According to these rough figures from Wikipedia, voter turnout has not been above 60% of the voting-age population for the last 50 years, but it has been fairly steady between 50% and 60% during that time. This places the US at 28th among the OECD nations.
The electoral college
The electoral college is often baffling to Australians because there is no electoral apparatus in Australia that looks anything like it. It applies only to presidential elections and was put in place by the Founding Fathers as a compromise between electing the president by a vote in congress and doing so by popular vote.
Here is how it works. Each state assigns electors amounting to the addition of that state’s senators and representatives. DC is entitled for three as well, for a total of 538 electors. Electors are chosen by the state parties and, like with seats in the Lower House, the states with the largest population also provide the largest number of electors. More information can be found here, here, and here.
All states except Maine and Nebraska take a “winner take all” approach, meaning that, in theory, each state gives all of its electors to the candidate who wins the most votes in that state. The problem is that the states are not legally required to do so, and so in cases where an election is very close for a given state, the college can simply decide who to give its votes to without waiting for the electoral process to play out. This can result in a candidate having lost the popular vote and yet still winning the presidency. This is what happened in the 2000 and 2016 elections, and probably the 2004 election as well. It is yet another illustration of the state of US politics that in 40% (possibly 60%) of the presidential elections that have been held in the 21st century, the candidate with the most votes did not become president.
The electoral college is undemocratic and should obviously be reformed or repealed in the modern age, but let us be reminded that Australians do not get an opportunity to elect their Prime Minister at all. In Australia the Prime Minister is appointed by his or her party and the party has the authority to remove and replace them on a whim. One can reasonably argue that elections are more about parties than individuals, but this does not stop Australian elections to be conducted in the same style as presidential elections in the US. I recommend checking out this piece by Stuart Littlemore from 2001.
In Australia the candidates for election are chosen directly by the parties; in the US they are chosen by primary elections. Theoretically, any citizen who is a member of a party can run for candidacy for that party, whether it be for senator, representative, or president. Party members then vote for each, and the winner becomes the candidate. Primaries for the presidential candidate are chosen by voting in each state. The rules governing primaries change from state to state and party to party. Some states can run standard elections via ballots, while others go via a caucus. Like the general elections, primaries are open for manipulation (as the Democrats demonstrated with their rigging of the primary for Clinton in 2016), but it does, in theory, make the electoral process more democratic than only having a general. The disadvantage is that it extends the election season by a much longer extent. And, of course, the corruption leading to the chosen primary candidate occurs before the primaries when nobody has begun to pay attention yet. Greg Palast has an enlightening article about how Barack Obama was brought into the limelight by the oligarchs here.
Each election offers an opportunity for a vote on a ballot measure on a matter that concerns them. Ballot measures involve a single issue that can be put up for a vote by the public, and if passed can become part of the local legislation. The relationship between government and ballot measures is somewhat murky. In theory, it seems, state and federal governments do not have the authority to override a ballot measure once it has passed, and yet in practice they can find means by which they can be rejected. A recent example is Maine, which passed a number of ballot measures in the 2016 election that became law in mid-2017. However, the governor of Maine (a particularly odious individual called Paul LePage) refuses to implement them. The rest of the Maine government has stepped in to prevent another such initiative.
The ballot measure is one practice of US elections that Australia would do well to adopt.
The US Constitution was enacted in 1789. It sets out rules governing the separation of powers (executive, legislative and judicial), the rights and responsibilities of state governments in relation to the federal government, and the procedure used by the states to ratify it. It is the document that begins with “We the people”. Some of the constitution is actively ignored these days, such as the part declaring that only Congress has the power to declare war (Article 1, Section 8) and the part providing measures that enable the people to stand up against their government if it becomes too corrupt or inept.
The authors of the US Constitution were aware that it would need to be updated and added upon as times and attitudes changed. Article five lays out the details by which this could be accomplished. The first ten amendments were all ratified in 1791. Some call this ten-amendment collective the US Bill of Rights.
There are currently 27 amendments in the US Constitution. One has been repealed – the 18th amendment which mandated the prohibition of alcohol was repealed by the 21st amendment 15 years later. The most recent involves the delaying of laws affecting congressional salary from taking effect until the following congress and was ratified in 1992. This Wikipedia entry provides a summary of them all. Some noteworthy examples include:
The 1st, which allows free speech, free press, and freedom of religion;
The 2nd, which protects the right to bear arms (more on this in a later blog);
The 5th, which prohibits self-incrimination and double-jeopardy;
The 8th, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment;
The 13th, which abolished slavery;
The 19th, which prohibited the denial of the right to vote based on sex;
The 22nd, which imposed term limits on the president.
Most Americans are not aware of the vast majority of the constitutional amendments, indeed few have read their constitution (but the same is true of the vast majority of Australians). The population seems to prefer to mostly concentrate on the first and second amendments. The 14th occasionally comes up, specifically the Immunities Clause, which prohibits the state from enforcing laws that abridge the privileges and immunities of US citizens. This one has arisen in recent times because of its regular violation by the police and government officials.
An amendment of tangible benefit to the American people has not been ratified since 1971. This is yet another illustration of the ineptitude and stagnation of the US government. Between the abolition of slavery in 1865 and the ratification of the 26th amendment there was, on average, an amendment passed every 7.5 years. Is life so perfect in the US that there has not been a need for an amendment in almost 50 years? How about one that declares that corporations are not people and that money is not free speech? Perhaps one that bans military personnel from serving in the government? How about one declaring that all military funding be disclosed and open to public ballots? A jury trial for every instance where a police officer discharges a firearm? I’m sure the reader could come up with many more.