USA - Behind the fig leaf of democracy

Jan 2001

It took no less than five weeks after last November's presidential election for the name of the 43rd US president to be proclaimed. The detailed scrutiny to which the US electoral system was subjected during these five weeks exposed the fact that after all, the institutions of the world's "greatest democracy" are not designed to give the population much of a say. In this respect, the governor of Arkansas, who compared his own state (although neither worse nor better than the others) to a "banana republic" in electoral matters, knew what he was talking about!

It is the fourth time in history that a US president has been elected without winning a majority of the popular vote. Indeed Al Gore won more votes in the country as a whole than his rival - a majority of 533,000 out of 104 million votes registered. This discrepancy between the final result and the popular vote is due to the "Electoral College" system used for the presidential election. How does this work? Each state plus the District of Columbia (around Washington) is allocated a certain number of Electors. It is these state Electors who form the so-called "Electoral College" to elect the president.

However, there are a number of twists in this system. First the number of Electors allocated to each state is not proportional to the size of its electoral register. For instance, the number of Electors is proportionably higher in the conservative Great Plains states, which have relatively small populations. Thus an Elector from the state of New York represents twice as many registered voters than one from South Dakota. Second, in 48 of the country's 50 states, the presidential candidate who wins a majority of the popular vote automatically gets all the state's electoral votes. In only two states (New Hanpshire and Nebraska) is the number of Electors won by each candidate calculated on the basis of his score. So, by winning the ballot in Florida, Bush was able to win an additional 25 votes, which allowed him to be elected by the 538-strong Electoral College, by 271 votes against Gore's 267.

This indirect, non-proportional electoral system is the reason for the large discrepancy between the electorate's choice and the vote of the Electoral College. The slogan "one person, one vote" is a meaningless joke. All the more so, because, while it is claimed that each ballot paper counts, not all ballot papers are even taken into account. It is estimated that two million ballot papers were not counted this year!

Florida's electoral saga

What happened in Florida gave an idea both of the total lack of precision in counting the votes and of the many irregularities which are allowed to take place. In this state alone, around 8,000 people were wrongly taken off the electoral register and were unable to get this corrected in time for the election. In two counties, 25,000 postal ballot papers which should not have been counted because they were incomplete, were filled in by Republican supporters and duly counted. In Miami, thousands of Haitian-born potential voters were unable to vote due to the absence of interpreters. The Palm Beach ballot paper was exposed by the media for its confusing layout which led many Gore supporters to vote for Buchanan by mistake. Some 26,000 voters, who were induced to punch holes twice in their ballot papers had their vote invalidated. The proportion of invalidated ballot papers in polling stations where the electorate was predominantly black (90% of black voters chose Gore) was twice as large as in Hispanic neighbourhoods and four times as large as in white neighbourhoods. One of the reasons for this imbalance was that the polling stations in the black areas had the largest number of defective counting machines. Finally two ballot boxes disappeared and were found later - one in a hotel room and the other one in a church. And the odds are that this long list of irregularities, found just in the state of Florida alone, is not even exhaustive.

Today, as a result of the publicity surrounding these irregularities, no-one dares to claim that Bush won more votes than Gore in Florida. However, the Supreme Court has decided in favour of procedures adopted by Florida's legislature, thereby allowing Bush to win the race.

The contested ballot papers will now be kept by Florida's archive services and, in accordance with the state's public disclosure law, they will be available for examination. However this will come at a price - around £800 per hour! Nevertheless, a number of academic research departments and civil rights organisations have already applied to use this right. And some of these applicants are determined to carry out the count which was never completed. So the truth about the Florida vote may eventually be revealed, but only after Bush has settled himself in the White House. And this truth may turn out to be very different from the official result. Indeed, while Bush only won Florida by a margin of 537 votes out of nearly 6 million, 45,000 ballots were not counted because the US Supreme Court decided to invalidate a judgement passed by the Florida Supreme Court in favour of a manual recount.

Ultimately, therefore, those whose say was decisive in the presidential election were the US Supreme Court judges - i.e. people who are appointed by the president with the Senate's approval for lifelong positions. So in fact, Bush won the election by just one vote, since the Supreme Court made its decision by 5 votes against 4!

Contempt for the electorate

Florida, however, is not an exception. Each state makes its own rules with regard to the presidential election. Then the counties and municipalities are responsible for organising the election within the framework of the rules applicable in each state, but using their own preferred arrangements. There is no electoral law or standard ballot paper applicable everywhere, even in any given state, let alone in the USA as a whole.

The electoral register is so unreliable that hundreds of thousands of people may be able to vote several times while others, who think they are registered, are unable to vote. Some areas have developed a local tradition of having dead citizens among those casting a vote. Thus a politician was quoted stating that he would like to be buried in Louisiana to be able to carry on having a political say after his death! Alaska is another case, with an electoral register comprising 40,000 more people than the number of residents of voting age. In seven states the electoral register overstates the number of actual potential voters by 20% or more.

The way in which the ballot is organised can be very different from one county to another. Only 9% of the US electorate have access to electronic voting. 27% have to tick boxes which are then scanned by optical reading machines (but then if the ticks are not large enough, they are simply ignored by the machines). 19% of the US electorate use mechanical voting machines dating back to 1892 - this despite the fact that production of these machines stopped in 1978 and spare parts have been unobtainable since 1988. Finally, 35% of the electorate use cards which have to be punched. However the punching machines are old and worn out and the holes they make are sometimes so bad that they are rejected by the counting machines. Then the manual recounting that takes place for these ballot papers amounts to "guessing" the choice of each voter. As to postal ballots, they are the target of the most extensive fraud operations. Each party hires specialised teams to buy out the votes of postal voters or to steal postal ballot papers. For once, this year, these practices have been exposed by reports published in some of the big American newspapers.

In 1998, Florida's Supreme Court passed a judgment stating that a ballot could be invalidated by the courts even if there was no tangible evidence of fraud, whether intended or actual - "reasonable doubt" as to whether the ballot "reflected the voters' will" was enough grounds to justify an invalidation. This gave the courts a lot of leeway. But it also amounts to a de facto admission of the extent of electoral irregularities. The same admission is also made by the US constitution itself, since it provides that whenever the presidential election results are not conclusive enough in a state, the state's legislature has the right to nominate the state's Electors - which is what nearly happened in Florida this time.

Of course electoral fraud is not specific to the US. It exists in one form or another in every country. But the inadequate resources devoted in the US to the election process, the dereliction of the voting and counting machines - all this illustrates graphically the deep contempt of the political system towards the electorate and its will. Such lousy equipment and haphazard counting methods would never be tolerated in Wall Street, for instance.

The fact that the system works so badly shows how little the "voice of the people" matters to American democracy.

Proven institutions

While some resources may be ploughed into the US electoral infrastructure as a result of this latest scandal, this will do nothing to change the institutions themselves. These institutions have been operating for over two centuries without the US capitalist class seeing the need to alter the 1787 constitution on which they are based. By way of comparison, a country like France has had at least 12 different constitutions over the same period. And even in Britain, where a comparison is more difficult due the absence of a written constitution, this absence only conceals many rather drastic changes in the powers of royalty, the government, Commons and House of Lords. In the USA, all the bourgeoisie ever bothered to do was to amend its constitution from time to time as it saw fit. Such institutional stability in the US only reflects the fact that originally the American institutions were designed as a solution to one vital problem which has remained just as vital ever since: how could a democratic regime, which was meant to represent the will of the population, be made to protect the interests of the ruling class from this "will" and ensure that the government would always rule in accordance with these interests?

In this respect too, the US bourgeoisie was a pioneer. Indeed, when the US constitution was adopted in 1787, the concept of a bourgeois republic was new. Certainly no such republic existed yet in Europe - neither in Britain, where the bourgeoisie still ruled in the shadow of the monarchy, nor even in France, where the bourgeois revolution had not yet taken place. And in fact, at the time, the American constitution appeared as a revolutionary measure.

However, one of the main concerns of the "founding fathers of the nation" as they are called, was to protect the wealth of the rich from the egalitarian aspirations of the poor. The alliance of the rich Southern plantation owners and the wealthy Northern traders and bankers was based on a common fear of violent rebellions among the population. And it was this alliance which presided over the enactment of the 1787 constitution.

Indeed it must be recalled that, in the USA, the second part of the 18th century saw many riots staged by small farmers against taxes, money lenders and the judges who ordered their eviction from their land. Rich traders and plantation owners were attacked and their properties were sometimes burnt down by the rioters. Between 1760 and 1776, no fewer than 18 uprisings against the British colonial authorities were reported, plus six rebellions among African slaves and around 40 riots of all kinds. The wealthy did their best to divert this anger against British domination. However, after the American colonies won their independence, in 1783, the American wealthy were left on their own to face the slaves, the Indians and the American poor whose destitution had increased due to the war of independence. There were more rebellions and, if anything, the fear of wealthy Americans increased.

Unlike its European counterpart, the US bourgeoisie was not hindered by institutions inherited from feudal times - which was a major advantage. But, by the same token, it was unable to use such institutions to act as a protective buffer for its rule against the population - in the way, for instance, that the British bourgeoisie has used the monarchy up until the present as a means to provide its own rule with a certain degree of legitimacy.

The wealthy's alliance against the population

The "founding fathers of the nation" were conscious of this problem. They themselves belonged to the wealthy class and most of them owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the 1776 Declaration of Independence, was a rich slave owner. But obviously it was not his own slaves that he had in mind when he wrote that "all men were created equal." George Washington, who led the fight against British occupation and presided over the Philadelphia convention which adopted the constitution, was a plantation owner from Virginia and the richest man in the country. Alexander Hamilton, who has written the draft constitution and became finance secretary under Washington, had links with powerful Northern interests through his wife. James Madison, who was the secretary of the Philadelphia convention and founded the Republican Democratic Party (the forerunner of today's Democrats) was a rich slave-plantation owner from Virginia.

The "founding fathers" wanted to keep central power within certain limits to ensure that in each state the authorities would remain master of their own state. But at the same time, they wanted to establish a strong enough central state as a bulwark against the demands of the majority of the population. They designed the 1787 constitution with the view to suppressing factional struggles and uprisings. Thus this constitution provided that the states' deputies would elect the US Senators as well as the Electors who would form the Electoral College to elect the US president. The president would appoint the Supreme Court judges. Only the state legislatures would be elected by means of direct suffrage (which did not mean universal suffrage at the time). Indians, slaves and women would be excluded from the electoral franchise, together with the poor propertyless whites. The idea behind this quite elaborate construction was obviously to shield the central institutions from the population's influence, by giving a say only to a selected layer of politicians. The atomisation of the population into different states was expected to prevent the development of USA-wide movements by fostering state-based parochialism. In fact, the "founding fathers" admitted quite cynically that the "divide and rule" strategy which they had fought against when it was used by British colonialism, was, after all, the safest way for the rich to run the USA.

The US bourgeoisie found many advantages in retaining a federal political structure. It allowed them to confine the expression of the population's opinions to local level. The interests of the rich classes were allowed to influence the policy of the states, whereas the central institutions took care of the general interests of the bourgeoisie. Thus the 1787 constitution allowed the Northern bourgeoisie and the Southern slave owners to co-exist and build up their wealth as well as the Union, for three-quarters of a century. Even later on, its flexibility made it possible to accommodate the specific interests of certain sections of the ruling class.

Thanks to this central state, largely shielded as it was from the population, together with a multitude of local powers, each with its own institutions, electoral system, legislation, tax system, judges and police, the US bourgeoisie was able to protect its rule by atomising the fights of the discontented and diverting them away from the central power. Indeed, even those aspects of the US political system which may appear very democratic, when compared to what happens in most European countries, such as the election of judges and sheriffs, only allow the population to make choices and express its opinion on a very limited scale - and only within the framework of an institutional pyramid designed to prevent the exploited and the oppressed from expressing their aspirations at national level.

Today each voter could be asked to vote 20 or 30 times in one go in order to elect various officials at local, state or federal level, and also be expected to vote in all sorts of referendums, none of which is actually designed to allow them to express their real opinions. All this is done in the name of democracy. But the result is to discourage voters by demanding of them that they should read dozens, sometimes hundreds of pages of literature allegedly designed to help them with their "choices". Thus Oregon voters received two 400-page volumes for this last election. Of course, voters are made to believe that it is their opinions which count. But, in fact, given that only powerful vested interests have the means to shape public opinion and in so far as voters are unable to identify any stake related to their preoccupations, it is these vested interests which impose their choices.

However, this political system has not always been able to prevent the struggles of the working population from developing on a federal scale. But each time this has happened, the system was amended while retaining its main characteristics.

The two parties of the exploiters

Originally, political parties were not catered for in the constitution. But very soon they were introduced as a means to complete the institutional framework. Their role became more sophisticated under the rule of president Andrew Jackson, who was elected first in 1828 and then re-elected in 1832. In the early 1830s, parties held national conventions for the first time in order to select their candidates. It was at that time that the rule allowing the winning party in a state to gain all the votes of its Electors was adopted. As the electoral franchise had been enlarged among the white male electorate, the parties sought to address voters more systematically. Jackson was a rich slave- owner and plantation-owner from Tennessee and the leader of the Democratic party. As such he represented the interests of the Southern slave-owners against the increasingly powerful Northern bourgeoisie. But to improve his chances, he even sought out the votes of workers - promising the enlargement of the electoral franchise and the 10-hour day for the latter - and succeeded in winning the election by winning the support of what he cynically called the Northern bourgeoisies' "white slaves".

This is what democracy was under Jackson - a means to mobilise the discontent of the working class behind the banner of one section of their class enemies!

The Republican party was launched a few years later to represent the Northern industrial capitalists. And like the Democratic party, it also proceeded to seek out the votes of the poorer classes, particularly among the Northern small farmers.

The Civil War was really a war between the Southern plantation owners, whose interests depended on cultivating trade with Britain, and the Northern industrialists, who were in competition with British industry. But after the end of the war and a brief reconstruction period, the two bourgeoisies resumed their alliance to run the country, on the basis of the new balance of forces established through the Civil War. This renewed alliance was sealed by the 1877 compromise which, among other things, allowed the Southern states to legislate as they pleased, including with respect to the rights of the black population. As a result, once again, the blacks were deprived of their right to vote in the South and subjected to the downright repression.

The ambiguous nature of the US constitution made it possible to retain its 1870 amendment - which said that no-one could be deprived of the right to vote on grounds of colour, race or past slave status (sex discrimination remained, however, until 1920) - while the Southern states did precisely the opposite, admittedly using all kinds of spurious pretexts, until the large-scale black struggles of the 1960s. And by 1964, when all tax-based electoral franchise was finally abolished by means of a constitutional amendment, it was still in existence in five states.

The two parties, Democrats and Republicans, both represented the wealthy classes. Their quasi-monopoly over US political life allowed them to defend the general interests of the capitalist class as a whole, on the basis of the compromise agreed in 1877. and to share out all power between them, to the extent that all subsequent attempts at setting up a third party either failed or met with only short-lived success.

Thanks to its wealth and power, the US bourgeoisie was able to find the resources to crush many struggles or to divert them towards dead ends. - whether the struggles of the small farmers or those of the working class. It was also able to corrupt the working class movement and to prevent the development of class consciousness through the existence of large workers' parties. Even when the possibility of building such a workers' party arose, in the aftermath of the great strikes of the 1930s, the leaders of the trade union movement used all their influence to put the working class in the tow of the Democratic party - a criminal policy which is still theirs today.

In the absence of large-scale social struggles and in so far as working class activists did not strive consciously to build a political party representing the interests of the working class, the institutions put in place by the US bourgeoisie made it very difficult for any new party to build the necessary national coverage and representation.

Money-based democracy

The issue of funding is a considerable obstacle in the US political system. The capitalist class devotes increasingly enormous funds to the election campaigns of the two main parties, in particular so that they can meet the exorbitant cost of access to the media. Election campaigns rank in third position in the advertising income of US television channels. 88% of elected Senators and 92% of elected members of the House of Representatives were also the candidates with the largest campaign expenditure among those standing in the same constituencies.

A total $1bn was spent in the 1992 election campaign, double this amount in 1996 and between $3bn and $4bn in the 2000 election - and this without taking into account the fees paid to hundreds of lawyers during the Florida saga. Most of the funds gathered by the two parties come from companies. Around fifteen big companies contributed more than $1m each. Many among them donate funds to both parties and some admit this openly.

The fact that money rules implies that corruption does too. Donating companies expect a return on their investment and politicians request hefty payments for their services. And while alternating in power, both sets of politicians auction out the resources of the state to those who can pay, in exactly the same way.

Over a century ago, in 1891, Engels already wrote, "we have here two large bands of speculative politicians who alternate in taking over state power and abuse it by resorting to the most corrupted means in the pursuit of the most shameful ends; and the nation is paralysed in front of these two large cartels of politicians who claim to be at its service but effectively dominate and plunder it."

Towards a party of the working class

Today election campaigns generate mostly indifference. Only half of the electorate bothers to go to the polling stations and the turnout is even lower among the working class electorate as people are increasingly aware of the fact that the choices on offer do not allow them to promote their interests.

In the last presidential election there was no stake whatsoever for the working population and the jobless. In fact, the media even discussed at great length how difficult it was to choose between two candidates whose programmes were virtually identical. After all, Al Gore himself declared, in the speech he made to admit his defeat, that "it is time now to admit that what we have in common is more important than what keeps us apart." And he then proceeded to offer his services to the new president. As to Bush, he replied to Gore by referring to the close cooperation between the Democrats and the Republicans in Texas, the state where he was governor.

Bush is about to continue the same policy against working people that Clinton and his predecessors implemented and that Gore intended to implement. He will grant Wall Street, US companies and the wealthy the handouts they demand - whether in terms of tax reduction, increased military spending, wider opening of the "education market" to the private sector, further rolling back of the pension system, etc.. And in doing so, he can count on the support of a majority of the elected members of the Congress, from both parties. The working class can expect Bush to enforce further degradation of its conditions - that is, unless it does something to oppose it. All the more so because, should a new recession take place, the government will use all its power to ensure that the working class foots the bill.

In the latest election, there was no candidate standing on a programme aimed at defending the interests of the working class. Besides the two main parties, the only candidate who campaigned on any sort of scale - the Green party candidate Ralph Nader who won 3% of the vote - stood on a totally different basis. And once again the trade union leaders chose to campaign for the Democratic party, thereby refusing to offer any other perspectives to workers.

In other words, the US working class has many obstacles to overcome in order to voice its demands and assert the idea that, against this powerful and over-confident capitalist class, another policy is not only possible but necessary, so that the vast majority of the population can put a stop to the continuous blows it has sustained over the past 25 years. The working class will undoubtedly have to wage big struggles. And in order to break down all the obstacles put in the way of its unifying its ranks and becoming conscious of its strength and ability to change society, it will have to build its own party - a party capable of offering a perspective to all the exploited and the oppressed and all those who are pushed to the sidelines by the barbaric society that capitalism has built in the world's richest country.

The strength of the US working class and the danger it represents for the capitalists has been demonstrated many times in the past. And neither the wealth of the US bourgeoisie - to which the majority of the population has less and less access - nor its old institutions - which are becoming increasingly rotten and corrupted - can prevent the re-emergence of the struggles of the working class and the realisation that this class is the only force capable of taking control of society in order to reorganise it on a different basis, not for the profits of a tiny minority but for the benefit of all.

2nd January 2001