Are Indiana elections an example of a democracy or a bureaucracy?

Are Indiana elections an example of a democracy or a bureaucracy?

By Michael Oxenrider, July 2017

I’m going to talk about the way we elect our representatives in Indiana. Much of what I say I suspect is true for the larger nation, but it’s potentially more salient to talk about the problems in our own backyard.

In 2016 Indiana voted (57 to 38 percent) in favor of a Republican over a Democrat for the presidency. It also voted (52 to 42 percent) for a Republican senator in 2016 and (53 to 47 percent) for a Republican Superintendent of Schools. Despite the obvious flaws of a first-past-the-post system that allows the possibility of one party to dominate a government, these numbers reveal that, statewide, the Indiana voter is noticeably more in the tank for the Republican Party. Previous elections will yield roughly the same percentages, but are a little kinder to the Democrats with them losing to Republicans at around a ten point spread. Occasionally, a Democrat will win statewide election and occasionally a Republican will win by a greater percentage. In any case, these numbers reveal two things: 1) There are usually more citizens willing to vote Republican than Democrat in Indiana, yet 2) there are enough Democrats in Indiana to compete and occasionally win.

Before tackling these subjects we have to first concentrate on the concept of representation itself and explore just how well we as Indiana citizens are represented as a whole.

A Representative Democracy

For the purposes of this polemic, lets bracket the two-party stranglehold that suppresses distension, encourages partisan in-group behavior, and flattens the infinite variety of political opinions to an unimaginative false dichotomy. Before tackling these subjects we have to first concentrate on the concept of representation itself and explore just how well we as Indiana citizens are represented as a whole.

A primary justification for representative government is that it’s unimaginably bulky (with our current technology) for the populace to have a hand in every decision. To do so would be true democracy, but the time and expense of holding a public referendum on each potential issue isn’t only impractical, there’s no guarantee it would yield superior results. Democracy isn’t a giant Wikipedia page where the best ideas rise to the top. A democratic-republic, on the other hand, hopes to reduce the number of deciders to a manageable number while still giving voice to all the citizens through representation. There’s some hope that these representatives will be knowledgeable and have enough self-interest to align themselves with the “will of the public.” However, this isn’t necessary for a democratic-republic to function because, in theory, if they don’t meet either of these two baseline criteria they’ll be replaced in the next election.

Yet, this is where the Indiana electoral system suffers the most. Due to an extreme lack of competition, there is no replacing these representatives. A “bad” representative can run roughshod on her constituents with very little fear of losing her job.

There are of course other factors at play. Hyper-partisanship is probably the most notable. But even in an era where two sides can’t come to a consensus on basic truths of reality, the representation across our state should be more equitable.

The Imbalance of Power

In Indiana we have nine congresspersons, 100 state representatives, and 50 state senators. If we were to imagine a representative electoral process with candidates who are equal in all ways except their party affiliation, it would yield similar numbers to the above party affiliation percentages. Namely, Congress, the state house, and the state senate should be in a clear Republican majority of about 55-60 percent. To spell it out, a system that accurately represented the way people actually vote in Indiana would yield five Republican congressional delegates, three Democratic ones and one Libertarian. Instead, we have seven Republicans and two Democrats.

Similarly the State House Assembly would have at least 38 Democrats and three or four  independents, with the rest representing the Republican Party. Instead, we currently have 71 Republicans and no independents. The state senate would bottom out at 19 Democratic state senators with maybe one or two independents. Instead we have 41 Republicans and only nine Democrats.

There would be fluctuation in these amounts, politics isn’t static, and not all candidates have equal resumes. But, that it doesn’t break down to these numbers, or even close, indicates a problem.

First, it’s possible that Republican candidates really are superior to their Democratic rivals above and beyond the natural partisan split. This would give them an edge in the polls. It would encourage Republican voters while convincing Democratic ones to stay home and not pull for their party. Moreover, it would deflate the desire of potential Democratic candidates to run for office.

My experience campaigning on the side of the Democrats tells me each of these factors is true. The Republican Party in Indiana is more organized, wealthier, and tends to field more experienced and well-known candidates with superior political acumen. However, it’s implausible to think that their superiority would account for such an imbalance in representation. A cursory look at the makeup for city council districts across Indiana’s most metropolitan areas reveals similarly lopsided numbers, but in these cases, in favor of the Democrats. For example, we have only one Republican City Councilor out of nine in the City of Lafayette. So why are these numbers lopsided? The real problem lies in the way that the districts are drawn.

In Indiana’s past four elections, less than 60% of statehouse races were actually contested. Out of those races however, only a handful didn’t have predetermined outcomes (a cynical but astute political observer could claim that none of them were up for grabs). Therefore, the vast majority of elections that occur across our state can hardly be called elections at all.  Instead, it would be more fair to label them bureaucratic appointments made by the dominant party in the region.

The Problem is Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering, the practice of drawings districts in such a way to determine the outcome of an election, is illegal if done on racial grounds and may be illegal on partisan ones. Unfortunately, proving intent is difficult and pointing to imbalances in results is a tough stand-in for proof. As of yet, the Supreme Court hasn’t ruled against partisan gerrymandering, but they’ve agreed to hear a Wisconsin case this October. Bare minimum — common sense dictates there’s something disingenuous afoot.

In Indiana’s past four elections, less than 60% of statehouse races were actually contested. Out of those races however, only a handful didn’t have predetermined outcomes (a cynical but astute political observer could claim that none of them were up for grabs). Therefore, the vast majority of elections that occur across our state can hardly be called elections at all.  Instead, it would be more fair to label them bureaucratic appointments made by the dominant party in the region.

The lack of participation of candidates is a symptom of gerrymandering as well. If the districts are drawn in such a way that they aren’t competitive, then the incentive to run is severely dampened. The money, time, effort, and public embarrassment of getting excoriated at the ballot box is enough to dissuade all but the most hopeful amongst us. Thus, usually when a candidate is found to compete in these districts, they typically don’t have anywhere near the same qualifications or resources as the Republican incumbent.

Indiana Democracy is Anything But

It’s fair to accuse a government that doesn’t represent its citizens as being undemocratic. We often scorn countries like Venezuela, Russia, and Iran for having what we like to call “sham elections.” In these countries, the public votes, but the system is designed in such a way that outcomes are already predetermined. Read me carefully, if the vast majority of our elections across this state are predetermined, then they also should be considered “sham” elections. It’s just a different kind of sham. Hence, the government in Indiana can’t be called a representative democracy. This aspect of predetermination runs counter to our American sense of independence and self-reliance. It runs counter to our sense of “what democracy is about.” When a foreign government has a predetermined election, Americans rightly call them on their bullshit. We label it a “de facto autocracy” and justly toss around heavy-handed accusations that the “leaders are oppressing their citizens.” If these factors are true of a government’s electoral process, then that government isn’t considered legitimate.

Our government in Indiana is not legitimate. I cry “foul.” If the Indiana Pacers played every game with wider rims on their side of the court, or the other team only had four players who were all backups, they may occasionally lose a couple games, but you’d hardly claim that this was representative of a fair contest. Nor would the broader public be interested in going to the game. This is why this issue is crucial to our democracy. People aren’t going to the game. The representation of our citizens is the single most important issue in Indiana. Without proper representation, democracy itself suffers. Your pet issue amounts to little when your representative has no fear of losing her office. Instead, elected officials calcify and turn a deaf ear to their constituents.

A Solution: Brave Representatives and Active Voters

This could be rectified. In addition to the Supreme Court case currently on the docket, there has been talk of establishing non-partisan redistricting in this state. This has been led in part by groups like the League of Women Voters and Common Cause. But the problem is, for something like this to pass, our representatives, especially those that benefit from this system, would have to put the very idea of representative-democracy ahead of their own interests. They’d have to be brave enough to not hide behind districts that all but ensure they’ll never lose their job. They’d have to stand up and serve the public, at the very potential risk of their own seats. This is a hard ask, but one thing my experience in politics has taught me is that there are real, conscientious people behind these posts. Most of them consider themselves public servants. Most of them would prefer, in the abstract at least, that the government of Indiana was more representative of its population. Most would probably prefer to earn their legitimacy, rather than have it conferred due to gerrymandering. I’m willing to bet that most of them would rather like to be considered as elected officials of a democratic-republic, than bureaucratic appointees of a dominant political party.

I believe it just takes a critical mass of voters. These voters will have to be clear-eyed about what’s actually happening each time they vote, about the lack of competition in their district, and the lack of representation of their family, friends and neighbors who carry a different political ideology. They’ll have to, undoubtedly, put the very notion of democracy above the very partisan notion of winning. They can still root for their favorite team, but instead of having the baskets shorter on one side of court or referees only calling fouls on their opponent, they’ll have to demand that the rules are fair for both sides. Call me naive, but I think both our representatives and our voters prefer democracy over bureaucracy.

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