Not everyone represented in America

By Mark Trahant
Published August 28th 2005 in Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Should half a population get a guarantee of at least some representation in the body politic? The proposed Iraq constitution says as much, reserving one-quarter of its parliament for female candidates.

Iraq "will finally go develop the skill sets to have a parliament that's a real parliament, popularly elected; to understand debate and compromise, which is not an easy thing," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said during a recent radio interview with Florida station WFLA. "If you think of it, it took the United States from 1776 to 1789 to fashion a constitution, and it wasn't a perfect constitution. It still had slavery. Women weren't allowed to vote. There were things that we've perfected over the decades since."

Things that we Americans have perfected are to be shared. But if Iraq's charter is such monumental progress, why are so many Iraqi women protesting? A couple of weeks ago, about 600 women marched on the streets of Baghdad -- imagine the courage it takes to protest on the streets while surrounded by war -- because they fear the constitution to be. Many are concerned that the religious Shariah law will replace one of the Middle East's more progressive family law structures.

And the guaranteed representation of women isn't quite as good as first read because it's a limited "two-year opening," according to the United Nations Development Fund for Women. The law will be re-evaluated by the next government, based on the participation of women and continue "only if they show interest and ability."

Wow. That's something we Americans need in our charter -- especially if you go beyond gender. Imagine what we could do with our Legislature and Congress if we could get rid of those who show neither interest nor ability.

Then again a two-year plan to reserve 25 percent of legislative seats in the United States would nearly double the number of women in the U.S. Senate, now at 13 percent, or the U.S. House, now at 14 percent.

Perhaps Iraq's charter is a way to renew the debate about our own democracy. Can a constitutional charter guarantee the representation of all its people? Is that how democracy is supposed to work? We've spent a lot of time in recent years talking about the mechanics of voting: who votes, how those votes are counted and the format we use to cast ballots.

Most believe, generally, that our representative democracy already works. It "represents" us. But what if you are one of the ones left out? What if day after day your vote, your voice, is excluded from the inclusionary business of elections?

Consider the numbers in the so-called People's House. There are 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, four delegates (from D.C., Guam, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa) plus the one "resident commissioner" from Puerto Rico.

The delegates and resident commissioner are almost representatives, members of Congress in perk only. They get to debate and serve on committees but don't get to vote on the floor of the House.

Puerto Rico, with about 4 million people, has more "sort-of voters" than Oregon. But Oregon has five members of the House and two senators, compared with Puerto Rico's single resident commissioner.

The District of Columbia has more citizens than Wyoming -- and is represented by one delegate. After all, there are eight states (including D.C.) with fewer than a million people.

On the other hand, the three territories of Guam, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa get far more representation per person than most states with their three delegates because they represent a combined total of only 300,000 people.

Congress is again considering legislation to do something -- not a lot, but something -- about the exclusion of citizens whose only crime is to live in Washington, D.C. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., would add two temporary members of Congress, one for D.C. and the other for Utah (the next eligible state). He says this approach balances the partisanship: one likely new Democrat and one likely new Republican.

Think about what's at stake here: For two centuries, residents of our nation's capital have paid federal taxes without a say. Or they've sent their young people to war -- again without any representation on any proposed war resolution.

If you look at American democracy as an observer from another shore, you would likely reach the conclusion that this boils down to an ethnic or racial divide. Washington, D.C., is 60 percent African American. And there is one African American in the Senate -- and only 39 African Americans in the House (including two delegates).

Is American democracy any better if you break it down ideologically? Of course not. The Congress is Republican and Democrat with a couple of independents, while the general political landscape is much richer. But we stick with a system -- winner take all -- that rewards 100 percent of the offices for votes that reach 50 percent, plus one.

"Women, third-party members, political independents and people are vastly underrepresented in elected bodies," writes Ryan O'Donnell on the Web site. There are other methods -- instant runoff voting, proportional representation and multimember districts -- that increase the possibility of a democratic body fully representing its constituents.

The American version of democracy is an unfinished experiment. A more perfect union? We're still working on it and perfection remains as far from our election system as is, say, Baghdad.