Saturday, September 18, 2004

Democratization Begins at Home

According to the annual survey conducted by Freedom House, 117 of the world's 192 states qualify as electoral democracies. Here, according to Freedom House, are the criteria for designating a state an electoral democracy:

Among the basic criteria for designating a country as an electoral democracy are that voters can choose their authoritative leaders freely from among competing groups and individuals not designated by the government; voters have access to information about candidates and their platforms; voters can vote without undue pressure from the authorities; and candidates can campaign free from intimidation.

Only 88 of the 117 states meeting the Freedom House criteria for electoral democracy are also classified as "free." The others fail to protect certain fundamental rights and freedoms for their citizens. They must, consequently, be considered illiberal democracies, to use Fareed Zakaria's term (in The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad).

On September 13, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced major changes in Russia's political system, the first in over a decade, that will have the effect of consolidating power in the presidency and dramatically weakening existing checks and balances in Russia's government. One day after the White House initially avoided commenting on Putin's proposals, calling them an internal matter, Secretary of State Powell offered a slightly stronger critique, calling the plan "a pulling back on some of the democratic reforms" that had previously occurred in Russia.

Now the latest issue of The Economist takes aim at democracy in America. An article entitled "Pyongyang on the Potomac" reveals to the world what many American political scientists have long recognized: there's a serious shortage of electoral democracy in the United States if one looks closely at elections to the House of Representatives. In fact, The Economist calls House elections "a travesty of democracy." Here's how The Economist describes the situation:

The sheer uncompetitiveness of most House races takes one's breath away. In 2002, four out of five of them were won by more than 20 points. The average margin was a stunning two to one, meaning some races had even bigger margins. Last time, 200 races had margins of 40 points or more and 80 were uncontested. So far this year, the uncontested figure is 68. In 2002, just four incumbents lost to challengers at the polls (another four lost in primaries). North Korea might be proud of the incumbent re-election rate: 99%. More than nine in ten Americans live in districts that are, in practice, one-party monopolies.

To my knowledge, not too many American political scientists have compared the United States to North Korea. But perhaps that's what it will take to get Americans to pay attention to the problem. The Economist is not exactly known as a radical rag; its criticism of uncompetitive House districts should not be casually dismissed.

(Legal Fiction has an excellent analysis of the impact of gerrymandering on the House of Representatives. For data of the sort cited by The Economist, see the amicus curiae brief by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein--a couple of political scientists--in Vieth v. Jubelirer.)

A good start toward the restoration of democracy at home would be the initiation of public financing of congressional campaigns and an end to the drawing of congressional districts by partisan legislatures. And, while we're at it, perhaps we could dispense with the Electoral College and eliminate the disenfranchisement of felons who have paid their debt to society.

[UPDATE: Colorado's plan to divide the state's nine electoral votes if Amendment 36 passes in November is a small, but useful step toward the elimination of the Electoral College.]