This is the fifth of FJ Rocca’s Civics Lessons series.
In the US, we have a constitutional republic in which government consists of elected public officials who do not control us, but who represent us in a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Representatives to Congress are elected every two years, Senators every six years, and Presidents every four years. The cycle of local elections for mayors and of state elections for Governor vary by state and municipality.
The electoral system is called representative democracy, because citizens vote into office officials who are sworn by oath to represent them. We elect our Congressional representatives in organized voting districts within states, our governors by State and the President by what is called the Electoral College.
The Electoral College was put in place to guarantee that votes in sparser populations, such as rural areas and in less populous states, are treated with equal weight to those in larger populated areas, such as cities and more heavily populated states. Without the Electoral College, heavily populated states, such as California, New York and Ohio would always determine who becomes President and votes from smaller states, such as Alabama, Rhode Island and the Dakotas, would have little power.
The Electoral College system has been criticized, usually by the larger states, who argue that their heavier votes are being neutralized in favor of much lighter votes from less populous states, but the Founders, in their wisdom, questioned the fairness of states with large urban centers deciding the ultimate fate of representation of these smaller areas. Until a fairer, more practical system is instituted, it is probably a fair assumption that the Electoral College will remain an operating feature of Presidential elections for the foreseeable future.
State legislatures may “redistrict” areas within a state in order to give sparser populated areas the equal voting power of larger urban areas. This redistricting can and often is used to change the party representation so that members of the party in office in that state will get more votes than the opposing party. This is known as gerrymandering, one definition of which is “To manipulate the boundaries of (an electoral constituency) so as to favor one party or class.” While this practice is not illegal, it is only marginally ethical at best and is often frowned upon because it allows those in power to manipulate votes to keep that power, even when people want them out of power.
Democratic voting is a process and not a governing principle, because the US is a constitutional republic and not a pure democracy. In John Adams’s eternally true words, the US has “a government of laws and not of men.” We do not elect representatives to make decisions independent of our wishes, but on their sworn oath to preserve and protect the rights of each and every individual citizen against encroachment by government. Many politicians lust after power. We must be on guard against them.
It is a battle to keep voting fair. If not properly monitored, voting can be falsified by what is called “voter fraud,” although voters usually have nothing to do with it. Voter fraud can take various forms. Agents of a particular candidate may inflate the vote in favor of that candidate by putting fake votes to the ballot box, or “stuffing” it. Votes for an opposing candidate may be destroyed or hidden so that they are not counted. Voting machines may be rigged so that the vote count is falsified. A particularly creative kind of voter fraud is to register dead people onto voter rolls and actually vote in their places. All these are illegal punishable as crimes.
But there are also ways for the vote to be skewed legally, if unethically, for example by a candidate telling malicious lies about his opponent either in print or on television. This is called “smearing” and is unethical, even if it is marginally legal. Or, a candidate can lie about his or her position on issues or on his past performance. Overcoming these requires careful scrutiny by voters.
The important thing for citizens to remember is that casting a vote for a candidate who can be trusted is the strongest protection against bad government. But voters must beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, in the form of candidates who promise to protect and preserve our freedom and individual rights, while actually working to undermine them. To be on guard against this eventuality it is necessary to be skeptical of any and all politicians who make promises other than to protect and preserve the principles outlined in our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. When someone promises to fundamentally change America, that person must not be trusted, because no change that takes away the fundamental freedom and rights granted to Americans by those founding documents can be a good change.
That being said, it is also easy to preach that voters are free because they have the vote. In order to exercise their vote to their benefit, citizens must be given candidates who truly represent the model set out by our founding fathers; people who are honest, trustworthy and patriotic. Any candidate who is not worthy should be rejected out of hand.
FJ Rocca is an independent, conservative writer/blogger of fiction and non-fiction, most interested in the philosophy of American conservatism. Clarity is more important than eloquence, but truth is vital to human discourse.