You Call This Democracy?: How to Fix Our Government and Deliver Power to the People
You Call This Democracy?: How to Fix Our Government and Deliver Power to the People
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Annotation: Author Elizabeth Rusch examines some of the more problematic aspects of American government that keep it from being more democratic, and offers young people ways to fix them.
Genre: [Government]
Catalog Number: #289650
Format: Perma-Bound Edition
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Copyright Date: 2020
Edition Date: 2020
Pages: 253 pages
Availability: Available
ISBN: Publisher: 0-358-38742-6 Perma-Bound: 0-7804-9757-0
ISBN 13: Publisher: 978-0-358-38742-8 Perma-Bound: 978-0-7804-9757-3
Dewey: 320.973
LCCN: 2019020612
Dimensions: 22 cm.
Language: English
Reviews:
ALA Booklist
Rusch tackles misconceptions about democracy beginning with the question, "Do you live in a democracy?" She says the book isn't a civics text, but it certainly clarifies what is presented in those texts. It is, perhaps, better described as an elucidating call to action, one chock full of engaging explanations, examples, charts, graphs, quotes, and names of activist groups focused on revising politically charged plots to undermine democratic processes. Furthermore, she encourages young adults to engage in issues and affect change with persistent combined voices. At the end of each chapter, she provides information about relevant activist groups. In comparison with world democracies, the U.S. ranks lower than most in percentage of voters, diversity of voters, age/racial discrimination of voters, and gerrymandering district lines. This is not a book to be digested in one sitting, but one that explores all the ways all citizens (not just youth) can become involved in democratic processes. Rusch's thorough documentation (548 notes) offers readers plenty of meat for their arguments. An excellent book to supplement (or supplant!) many civics texts.
Kirkus Reviews
Detailing how threats to democracy—some long-standing, others recent—deprive Americans of all political stripes of the power to participate in their governance, this users' manual offers new and future voters ways to make their voices heard and their ballots count.The challenges are sobering, and Rusch lays them out clearly. Citizen voters don't elect presidents; the Electoral College does, and twice in 20 years it has elected the candidate who lost the popular vote. Like sparsely populated, early-primary states, "battleground" states essential to securing Electoral College victory play an outsize role in selecting presidential candidates; meanwhile, other states get little attention. Each state has two senators, regardless of population; today, half the Senate represents just 16.2% of the U.S. population. With election spending now a financial arms race, issues wealthy donors care about are prioritized over those of other constituents; time politicians must devote to fundraising leaves significantly less for legislating. Gerrymandering, with a long, bipartisan history and now technologically weaponized, engineers House legislative districts to ensure one-party control. Voter-suppression efforts target youth and minorities. Rusch has some hope to offer: To address these and many other challenges, initiatives for restoring democracy—some from teen activists—are described and resources provided. Effective infographics and references support the streamlined text. Rusch unites a passion for democracy with a belief in the power of young people to help restore it.A riveting must-read. (bibliography, online resources) (Nonfiction. 10-16)
School Library Journal
Gr 6 Up-Rusch offers a sprawling, information-rich exploration of the current state of American democracy. Readers will gain a greater understanding of topics including how dark money can influence elections, voter suppression, and what the Senate actually is and how it impacts the democratic functioning of the United States government. Snappy infographics help break up the text, which can sometimes seem daunting. Extensive reliance on academic experts in fields such as gerrymandering and voter turnout prevents the appearance of partisanship. Rusch clearly wants to avoid bias; there is an almost pathological pattern of citing an identified Republican source and then citing an identified Democratic source (and vice versa) in close proximity. The work's broad scope is sometimes its downfall. When discussing the Electoral College, the author minimizes the pivotal role that slavery played in its establishment and the passage of the 12th Amendment. Furthermore, Rusch repeatedly props up the Constitution as a democratic lodestar; it might be asked how democratic our roots are if women, Native Americans, and people of color were not allowed to vote on this foundational document. VERDICT A serviceable resource for middle and high school patrons who want to improve our democracy. Ted McCoy, Austin Public Library, Austin, TX
Starred Review for Kirkus Reviews
Detailing how threats to democracy—some long-standing, others recent—deprive Americans of all political stripes of the power to participate in their governance, this users' manual offers new and future voters ways to make their voices heard and their ballots count.The challenges are sobering, and Rusch lays them out clearly. Citizen voters don't elect presidents; the Electoral College does, and twice in 20 years it has elected the candidate who lost the popular vote. Like sparsely populated, early-primary states, "battleground" states essential to securing Electoral College victory play an outsize role in selecting presidential candidates; meanwhile, other states get little attention. Each state has two senators, regardless of population; today, half the Senate represents just 16.2% of the U.S. population. With election spending now a financial arms race, issues wealthy donors care about are prioritized over those of other constituents; time politicians must devote to fundraising leaves significantly less for legislating. Gerrymandering, with a long, bipartisan history and now technologically weaponized, engineers House legislative districts to ensure one-party control. Voter-suppression efforts target youth and minorities. Rusch has some hope to offer: To address these and many other challenges, initiatives for restoring democracy—some from teen activists—are described and resources provided. Effective infographics and references support the streamlined text. Rusch unites a passion for democracy with a belief in the power of young people to help restore it.A riveting must-read. (bibliography, online resources) (Nonfiction. 10-16)
Reviewing Agencies: - Find Other Reviewed Titles
Starred Review for Kirkus Reviews
ALA Booklist (2/1/20)
School Library Journal (2/1/20)
Bibliography Index/Note: Includes bibliographical references.
Word Count: 44,386
Reading Level: 8.7
Interest Level: 5-9
Accelerated Reader: reading level: 8.7 / points: 8.0 / quiz: 510540 / grade: Middle Grades+
Lexile: 1140L

CHAPTER ONE

You Can't Vote for President

Every four years, voters across the country cast ballots to fill the highest government position in the country: president of the United States. They scan the list of candidates and mark a box by their choice, confident that they have had a say in this important decision.
      But read the ballot's fine print, and you might find something like this: "A ballot cast for President and Vice President of the United States is considered a ballot cast for the slate of presidential electors nominated by the political party."
      You don't vote for president. Someone else does it for you.
      Though Americans vote on the first Tuesday in November, the president and vice president are not actually elected then. Instead, every state is allocated a number of people called "electors" equal to the number of the state's U.S. senators and representatives. For example, New Jersey has two senators and twelve members in the House of Representatives, so the state has fourteen electors.
      About a month after the election, the electors meet in their state capitals to cast their votes. Though the electors from all the states never gather in one place, they are traditionally called the Electoral College. Currently, the candidate who receives at least 270 out of 538 possible electoral votes wins the presidency.
      This may be the oddest feature of our democracy--that we citizens don't get to elect our president (or vice president). It's also the most undemocratic.

WHY ELECTORS?

This strange system is a relic from a very different time in U.S. history. In 1787, the new citizens of America had little experience electing national leaders. They were used to having a king. In the eighteenth century, when our founders gathered to create our system of government at the Constitutional Convention, they worried that tricky long-distance communication and transportation would make it difficult to properly inform voters about candidacies. They had no telephones, television, or even telegraphs; mail and newspapers were delivered by coach.
      These days, we have plenty of experience directly voting for officials--and with television, computers, and the internet, people have access to loads of information about all the candidates and issues.
      Another concern at the time was education. Founders thought it prudent to leave the decision to fewer, better-educated citizens. Today, with twelve years of free, public education available to everyone, literacy is near universal in the United States.
      Some founders also wanted a backup plan to correct mistakes made by uneducated and unruly voters. Alexander Hamilton wrote that electors would stop someone with "talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity" from taking the top office and further prevent "foreign powers to an improper ascendant in our councils." In other words, Hamilton hoped electors would prevent a popular but corrupt candidate or someone strongly influenced by foreign powers from taking office.
      But that is not how electors operate today. Electors are chosen by their political parties for their party loyalty, so they are not likely to vote for the other party's candidate. In addition, many state laws require electors to vote for the candidate that won that state's election. Electors have become no more than a rubber stamp for the statewide elections.

WINNERS LOSE

When this strange, outdated system works, the winner of the electoral vote and the nationwide popular vote--the actual tally of the citizen's votes--are the same. But sometimes the system fails, defying the will of the people, awarding the presidency to the loser of the popular vote and putting the election and the effectiveness of our democracy in doubt.
      The problem lies in how elections are run at the state level. In forty-eight states and the District of Columbia, the presidential candidate who wins the statewide election gets all of that state's electoral votes. This is called "winner takes all." Compare that with a national popular vote, in which we would simply add together citizens' votes--just like we do for all other elections.
      This "winner takes all" approach distorts reality. For example, if a state has ten electors, and a candidate wins 51 percent of the vote, that candidate gets all ten electoral votes. It's as if the candidate won 100 percent of the popular vote in that state, even though 49 percent voted for the opponent.
      These state-by-state distortions can add up. Five times in our short history (1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, 2016), the candidate who won the highest number of citizens' votes did not take office. Because of our electoral system, the popular-vote winner lost.
      This will likely keep happening. In 2016, a study by National Public Radio found that it's possible for a candidate to win the Electoral College with less than a quarter of the popular vote! Can we really call ourselves a democracy if we hand the most powerful office to candidates who lose the popular vote?

CLOSE RACES AND TIES

In addition to being sorely out of date, the Electoral College system also leads to statewide recounts. A tight race in just one state can throw an entire presidential election into question. In 2000, the race in Florida came down to 537 votes. It took thirty-five days, with multiple attempts at recounting, and rulings from both the Florida State Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court, to settle the question of who would become president. The process left many questioning the outcome of the election.
      There have been a few almost-misses too. In 2004, a shift of just sixty thousand votes to John Kerry (D) in Ohio would have cost George W. Bush (R) the election, despite Bush's 3-million-vote lead nationwide. In 1976, a shift of roughly nine thousand votes in Hawaii and Ohio would have wrested the presidency from Jimmy Carter (D), despite his almost 2-million-vote lead nationally over Gerald Ford (R).
      The Constitution also dictates what happens if there is a tie in electoral votes or if no candidate wins a majority--and it's pretty undemocratic. The decision goes to the U.S. House of Representatives, where each state gets just one vote. That means Wyoming, representing about half a million people, gets the same say as Texas, with its close to 30 million residents. It's hard to imagine a scenario farther from the principle of one person, one vote.

ONLY A FEW STATES MATTER

Perhaps the biggest problem with our electoral system starts long before any votes are cast. The Electoral College distorts campaigns by focusing the battle for the presidency on a few states rather than on the interests of the whole nation.
      It is not the size of the state, the location of the state, or even the number of electoral votes that determines whether candidates care about your vote. It all depends on whether or not you live in a "battleground" or "swing" state, one with fairly equal numbers of Democratic and Republican voters. Candidates focus on winning those close races.
      Citizens in the majority of states, the "spectator" states, have almost no say in picking the next leader of the country. When candidates already have a comfortable lead or sizable lag, they don't bother to meet with citizens in those states. They don't give speeches or attend rallies that might excite people about the issues. They don't poll or survey voters about their concerns. They don't pay for ads advocating for their positions or educating voters in those states. They don't even bother to try to register voters.
      In 2012, for example, two-thirds of presidential campaign events happened in just four states: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa. Thirty-eight states got no visits from candidates. These ignored states included almost all the rural, western, southern, and New England states. In 2016, two-thirds of the campaign events happened in just six states, with similar regions completely ignored.
      "If you're one of the four out of every five Americans who doesn't live in a battleground state, your voting doesn't count," says Saul Anuzis, former chair of Michigan's Republican Party, who supports a national popular vote. College sophomore Wynter Nelson knows firsthand what it's like to live in a spectator state. "It's kind of ridiculous because they push you and push you to vote, but then in the end, your vote doesn't really matter," she says. Maybe that is why voter turnout tends to be 11 percent lower in spectator states.
      An international team of election experts who observed the 2016 U.S. elections saw the focus on battleground states and made a bold recommendation. They suggested that the United States reconsider the electoral system: "The aim of these proposals would be to ensure that presidential candidates campaign equally in all states and do not focus only on swing states," says the report from forty-one election experts and observers from eighteen countries. "In addition, they are an effort to ensure that public policy priorities are not distorted in an effort to win the vote of the most contested states."
      Policy issues important to the few battleground states overshadow the interests of the country as a whole. As Businessweek noted: "[The] corn farmer living in Iowa is coveted by both parties and showered with goodies, such as ethanol subsidies. But just next door, the wheat grower in Republican South Dakota is insignificant to Presidential candidates. Ditto the hog farmer in Nebraska, the potato grower in Idaho, and the rancher in Oklahoma."
      Money flows unevenly, too, with battleground states receiving about 7 percent more federal grant money than other states--and many more presidential disaster declarations. Andrew Reeves, a political scientist at Washington University, discovered that battleground states obtain double the number of disaster declarations as other states. Awarding disaster relief pays off in elections, he found. Each presidential declaration brought a 1 percent bump to that president's party come election time.
      Does this seem fair? Do we want to keep having an election for the president of the Swing States of America, or is it time to try an election for the president of us all?

AMERICANS WANT TO ELECT THEIR PRESIDENT

Americans are ready to make the change. According to statewide and Gallup polls, roughly 70 percent of Americans favor switching to a nationwide popular vote, with little variation among Republicans, Democrats, and independents. That's almost three-quarters of Americans.
      Tom Emmer (R), who ran for governor in Minnesota, thinks a national popular vote would encourage presidential candidates to run like governors do. "I had to run the entire state," he says. "I had to hit agricultural folks the same way I had to hit the folks on the Iron Range and it had to be consistent. [A popular vote] will transform national politics. You will see candidates run the entire country."
      A presidential election based on a nationwide popular vote rather than state-by-state votes for electors would not only be fairer, it would also run more smoothly. A nationwide popular vote would create a massive pool of a couple of hundred million voters. This would likely create a much wider margin than in statewide races where margins can run in the hundreds, triggering recounts.
      Finally, a popular vote would give every voter in the country a reason to participate. States might get serious about registering and encouraging voters as well. In the current system, it makes no difference if one person turns out to vote in a state or millions do; states are awarded the same number of electors. The national popular vote gives states an incentive to increase their power by energizing their citizens--and that is good for democracy.
      So how can we make it happen?

THE STATE SOLUTION

The Electoral College was established through Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution. That means getting rid of the Electoral College would require a constitutional amendment. The U.S. House and Senate would have to pass the amendment by a two-thirds vote. Three-fourths (thirty-eight) of the fifty states would have to ratify, or formally agree to, the change. According to the National Archives, there have been more than seven hundred efforts to abolish or change the Electoral College by constitutional amendment. None have passed Congress. So that doesn't seem very promising.
      There is another option.
      In 2006, a computer scientist named John R. Koza proposed a different approach. When Koza was in his early twenties, he and some friends invented a board game based on the Electoral College. Later, Koza served as an elector in two presidential elections, but the role did not sit well with him. "The current system is insane and unjustifiable," he says. "It leaves at least 40 states out of the process."
      He thought the popular vote was the right way to go and wondered how it could be accomplished. Then he learned about interstate compacts--where two or more states agree to handle something the same way. He realized that the Constitution itself holds the key to fixing the problem. The Constitution reads: "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . ." That opens the door for states to agree together to designate all their electors to whomever wins the nationwide popular vote!
      In a press conference in 2006, Koza, along with Democratic, Republican, and independent members of Congress, introduced the National Popular Vote interstate compact. Within days the Chicago Sun Times, New York Times, and Minneapolis Star-Tribune endorsed the idea. "We say the United States is ready for real democracy," said the Los Angeles Times. "A system that produces a majority winner will boost political engagement across all 50 states," noted the Denver Post.
      About a year later, Maryland became the first state to enact the compact. Soon, state legislators all across the country took up the bill. New Jersey signed it into law. Illinois became the third state, then Hawaii. The list is now fifteen states long (plus D.C.), representing 196 electoral votes.
      The compact will take effect once states representing a total of 270 electoral votes--the number needed to win the presidency--have signed on. The endeavor is two-thirds of the way there, with just seventy-four more electoral votes needed. Efforts are afoot in a dozen or so states, which could get the tally to the magic 270.
      If that happens, whether your vote matters won't depend on whether you live in a battleground or spectator state, in a heavily Republican or heavily Democratic state. Your vote--every vote--will count equally toward electing the president of the United States.
      About a third of Americans say they want to keep the Electoral College as it is. They worry that any change would be unconstitutional. But the Constitution gives states complete control to decide how to allocate electors. They worry that counting a national vote would be expensive. But it is not difficult to add up votes from fifty states and the District of Columbia; it already happens. They worry that small states will be ignored. But small spectator states are already ignored. They worry that the national popular vote will favor one party over another. But that will happen only if the American people favor one party over another, which is how democracy is supposed to work.
      That's why the National Popular Vote has broad support in the Republican and Democratic parties. During debate over the measure in the Colorado Senate, Ken Gordon (D) said: "We think the president should be the person who gets the majority vote. It's the bedrock of our democracy." Kirk Dillard (R), Illinois state senator and chair of his local Republican party, felt the same. "This isn't a Democratic or Republican issue to me," he said. "It's important that people have faith that, in the election of the most important office in the world, their vote will count."
      Organizations as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Conservative Party of New York endorse the National Popular Vote. Even electors recognize the folly of the process they participate in. Wisconsin electors adopted a resolution calling for the abolition of the Electoral College system.
      A growing number of Americans agree that for a position as important to our country as the president of the United States, every vote in every state should count equally in every presidential election.



Excerpted from You Call This Democracy?: How to Fix Our Government and Deliver Power to the People by Elizabeth Rusch
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Presidents who take office without winning the popular vote, Millions of citizens-young, old, poor, people of color, women-blocked from voting, Voting districts drawn by politicians for their own benefit, Money, money, money wielding more influence than the wishes of ordinary Americans, We Think We Live in a Democracy. One person, one vote. But how democratic is our government really? The hard truth is that political power is not shared equally among all citizens. It shouldn't matter if you are rich, poor, urban, rural, Democrat, Republican, male, female, old, or young when you check off a voting box. But it does. Consider the issues you care about: The quality of our schools. Health care. Immigration. Gun violence. Jobs. The environment. If we want to fix any of the problems facing our nation, we have to fix our democracy. So read this book. Get outraged. And then get to work. Our future depends on it. A Junior Library Guild Selection Book jacket.


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