All votes are not created equal

Jonathan Reed

This November, when I mail my ballot back home to Ohio, the circle I fill in next to “For U.S. Senate” won’t matter as much as a vote for or against Republican Sen. Richard Shelby here in Alabama.

Strangely enough, you could say that my vote for president two Novembers ago probably mattered more than that of someone from Alabama. It was fairly obvious from the start that Alabama and its electoral votes would go to John McCain, while Ohio’s votes were up in the air until election night. It’s all because of the Electoral College, that great enigma of policy that gave us a second-place winner in 2000.

The Electoral College, however, isn’t the only dysfunctional fossil in American politics.

I say that my vote for senator won’t matter as much as an Alabamian’s because Ohio has almost three times as many people. (Then again, the race in Ohio is at least competitive. Nobody’s going to beat Shelby, the crown prince of obstructionists until Jim Bunning usurped the throne this week).

My senators represent over 11 million people, yet get the same vote as Alabama’s senators, who represent just over 4 million. It’s the nature of the Senate that all states get equal votes so that big states with more constituents can’t drown out the interest of those states with fewer people. In terms of who gets a voice in the senate on important issues like health care reform, one Wyomingite has the same influence as about 67 Californians.

Sound fair? The Senate isn’t about fair. That’s what the House of Representatives is for.

The scenario this creates is a weird one. The Senate is also the only body of Congress where a minority (and, in some cases, just one person) can completely stall progress by the elected majority. In the House, the majority rules and everyone from Nancy Pelosi to Parker Griffith represents the same number of people. It’s democratic (with a small “d”).

In the Senate, 41 senators can stop the majority. How undemocratic. Only in the land of Ruben Studdard could second place dominate and the winner be a loser.

So what happens when you combine the varying legitimacy (in terms of people represented) of senators with the concept of minority obstruction? How many Americans does it take to stop a health care bill?

Slate did the math a month ago.

As it turns out, filibusters are quite democratic – as long as they’re Democratic. When Democrats have filibustered a Republican majority in the past two decades, the senators obstructing the majority represented the majority of Americans a whopping 64 percent of the time. When Republicans have done so, they represented the majority of Americans 3 percent of the time.

Earlier this week, Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., delayed a bill all by himself, representing about 1.4 percent of the U.S. population. One elected official has the ability to unilaterally deny thousands, if not millions, of Americans their unemployment benefits. Where has democracy gone?

We see the idea of majority rule pop up every once in a while when a state votes on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. People say that the majority of people have spoken, and that’s the way it should be. Yet when the majority of people voted for President Obama and when the majority of people elected Democrats to Congress, the idea of majority rule is thrown out the window. The minority rules. Why? Because they can.

Republicans are blocking the reforms that Americans voted for, and they’re blaming Democrats for those reforms not succeeding in fixing the economy. Really, the economy’s failure to improve isn’t the Democrats’ fault. Who knows what would have happened if Democrats had been able to carry out their electoral mandate? Who knows what would have happened if the minority hadn’t decided to usurp the will of the American people?

The Senate should not get rid of the filibuster, though. I look forward to the day a Republican majority watches as the Democratic minority leader clearly tallies of the number of Democratic voters and Republican voters represented in the Senate and indicates that their filibuster, while a minority of senators, is the will of the majority of voters. Maybe then Republicans will realize that bipartisanship doesn’t mean obstructionism. Instead, it means realizing you lost the election accepting that your direction isn’t what America wants.

Jonathan Reed is the opinions editor of The Crimson White. His column runs on Fridays.