In recent years, the glaring difference between the ethnic makeup of the United States and its government has sparked controversy.
Let’s look at the numbers: 83% of the American Congress is white, while only 62% of America’s population is white. Because of this, many have pointed out that the legislative body created to represent them can’t even represent their races proportionately.
But with America’s current electoral system, that should be expected. In my opinion, the system is set up to favour whichever group happens to be the majority.
What does that mean?
As I see it, the problem stems from the first-past-the-post system the United States uses to elect members of Congress. The voting system goes like this: whoever gets the most votes wins. This means that the candidate with the most votes wins the election, even if they secured just 10% of the vote.
That’s the problem with first-past-the-post. More often than not, the winner has less than 50% of the vote. This means that there were more people who didn’t want them than people who did. Also, this means that the supporters of all the losing candidates do not get a voice in the resulting government.
In America’s case, I believe this has resulted in a Congress that is 21% more white than the American population.
Well, how did this actually happen?
Let’s be clear here: I’m not an expert in American politics. I am not even American. If you are American, you might get offended with my example. But it’s an example. Not real life. If you are still offended, I apologise.
Let’s imagine for a second that every American votes along racial lines. To be specific, every American votes for a candidate that shares their race. (This doesn’t happen in real life, but we’re imagining here.) Given that in most constituencies, a majority of the people are white, what happens?
Well, then most of the elected members would be white.
That’s an extreme example. Here’s a more realistic one. Supposing only 10% of the population votes along racial lines, and the other 90% votes based on the candidates’ policies. And suppose that the 90% are divided almost equally across all the candidates. That means, of course, the 10% voting along racial lines will decide the victor. And again, if the majority of the people are of one race, that race’s candidate will win.
Of course, there’s more to the system than that. Even with a more balanced electoral system, a majority people group will still form a majority of the government. But in a more balanced system, their percentage of government representation would not be disproportionate to their share of population. Or to state it in another way, with a more balanced electoral system, all groups in the country should have a proportionate representation in government.
In the case of the United States, the problem is not that whites make up a majority of Congress. The problem is that they make up a disproportionately large majority which doesn’t represent the general populace.
Some of you might be thinking, how about Obama? He’s an African-American who was elected President. Well, here’s the thing. The math that I have been talking refers to the election of a group of representatives, like the Senate. The presidential election concerns only one candidate. (Two, if you count the Vice President.) And the American presidential election is one of the most confusing and strange electoral systems in the world. (If you want to know about that election, see here.)
You’re probably wondering whether there are other electoral systems that result in a more balanced makeup. Well, yes. For example, Singapore uses multi-member constituencies where a voter’s ballot goes towards a team of candidates rather than a single person. However, in these tickets, it is required that one or more of the candidates are from a racial minority in the country. This system has resulted in minority races composing 29% of the government, closely matching their share of the overall population, which is 26%.
And just to be clear: America is not the only country that suffers problems with first-past-the-post and disproportionate racial percentages in their government. It just happens to be the most prominent and influential country, which is why I picked it for discussion. Many other countries also have problems with first-past-the-post, although their problems are usually more connected to political parties than they are to race. But that’s a blog post for another day.
And for those of you who can vote, here’s an piece of advice from a person who’s too young to: vote for people based on their policies, not their skin colour.