Sujit Choudhry

Sujit Choudhry and Geography’s Threat to Democracy

Sujit Choudhry is the founding director of the Center for Constitutional Transitions and an internationally recognized authority on comparative constitutional law and politics. The focus of his research spans across a wide variety of comparative constitutional law and politics issues. In 2014, he and his colleague, Michael Pal from the University of Ottawa – Common Law Section; Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation, published an article in the Canadian Political Science Review. The article, Still Not Equal? Visible Minority Vote Dilution in Canada, discusses voting power for visible and non-visible minorities for the 2004 federal electoral map as well as for provincial electoral districts in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. The major conclusion was that the concept of vote dilution is prominent in regions of visible minorities.

Sujit Choudhry’s Address at the Semi-Presidentialism Round-table in Ukraine

The democratic political power path is bifurcated. One side is demography, or satisfying interests and beliefs of the largest group of people and winning their votes. The other path is geography, referring to securing voters in the many regions that are scarcely populated. In other words, by focusing on the geography principle, this bifurcation enables the adoption of public policies that are not always appealing to the majority. At the moment, the majority of the democratic world is largely based on geographic rather than demographic politics.

 

The most famous example of this is the situation in the United States, where both the presidency as well as the Senate can be won via geography rather than demography. The effect of geography is especially evident in the fact that despite a strong majority of the American people having liberal, racially tolerant and international-minded views, they have been overpowered by a faction of the Republican Party that is associated with U.S. President Donald Trump.

 

Even back in 2010, at a time when the broad center-left voting coalition under the former U.S. president Barack Obama seemed to dominate U.S. politics, Joel Kotkin of the conservative American Enterprise Institute prognosticated that, “Demographics may seem a long-term boon for Democrats,” he wrote, “but geographic trends tilt in the opposite direction.” This became evident in the victory of President Trump who was favored by the increasingly non-diverse, older populations residing in the underpopulated center. Even though the vast majority voted against him, out of the 592 counties that supported him, 520 were populated by fewer than 50,000 individuals, and won almost every county populated by fewer than 10,000 individuals.

 

This problem spans beyond the American borders, too. Europe is affected by fringe parties of intolerance and in some cases a parliamentary majority via the geography approach. The extreme-right Alternative for Germany that had a strong showing in October’s national election was in large part due to focus on the sparse and depopulated regions of former communist East Germany. Poland is another example, whose Law and Justice Party governs after appealing more to rural areas by turning nationalist and xenophobic. France, too, played the geography card when its National Front made it to the first round of presidential elections.

 

Canada is also not immune to this threat to democracy when leaders with fringe ideas take power by appealing to underpopulated regions of the country. The Canadian democratic system is most vulnerable due to the great imbalance between rural and urban as well as suburban ridings, the latter two of which are more densely populated. While the 2011 Fair Representation Act added equality to Canada’s provinces by introducing 30 new ridings, rural overrepresentation remained unaddressed.

 

This is where the study by Choudhry and Pal is of such importance. According to their findings, introducing new ridings had two downsides. Not only did those rural ridings have more voting power, but Canadians from racial-minority backgrounds living in metropolitan areas were severely underrepresented. The researchers found that for every Canadian’s vote power of 1, those in ridings that are more than 99% white have a voting power of 1.37. Canadians who reside in ridings that are more than 30% non-white have a voting power of 0.88. This means that the electoral clout of voters residing in all-white ridings is 55% higher than that of voters in diverse ridings. The scholars refer to this concept as vote dilution that is present among the diverse ridings. It carries particular demographic, policy and constitutional considerations significance, and the scholars conclude their study by highlighting that a reform is critical.

 

Overall, it is the moderate parties that must work on winning back geography. The inherent struggle that America’s Democrats are facing is the discrepancy between geography voters in the northern states, who felt that their candidate while too liberal on social issues, and those who are in safe Democratic urban districts thought the opposite. As the term ‘too liberal’ has many meanings, the solution to this may be in delivering different election-year messages and not focusing on changing policies. However, the overall conclusion of the 2016 U.S. election is that the in-between places must not be ignored as there is a method to win for a party that is ready to bet on symbolic resentments and fears of residents in scarcely populated areas.

 

Sujit Choudhry is the founding director of the Center for Constitutional Transitions and I. Michael Heyman Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He works as constitutional advisor to emerging democracies across the world. He is currently also a member of the United Nations Mediation Roster and was a consultant to the World Bank Institute at the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program.

 

Choudhry has also been a constitutional advisor for over two decades. He has expertise in facilitating public dialogue sessions with civil society groups and other stakeholders, leading stakeholder consultations, performing detailed advisory work with technical experts, training civil servants and bureaucrats, engaging party leaders and parliamentarians, and drafting technical reports and memoranda in the field. He is currently also a member of the United Nations Mediation Roster and consultant to the World Bank Institute at the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program.

 

His publication record includes over ninety articles, book chapters, working papers and reports. He is author of several books and a member of the Executive Committee of the International Society of Public Law, the International Advisory Council of the Institute for Integrated Transitions, the Scientific Advisory Board of the International Journal of Constitutional Law, the Editorial Board of the Constitutional Court Review, the Editorial Advisory Board for the Cambridge Studies in Constitutional Law, and is an Honorary Member of the Advisory Council of the Indian Constitutional Law Review. More information on Sujit Choudhry can be found on his personal website sujitchoudhry.com as well as on LinkedIn, Twitter (@sujit_choudhry), Instagram (@sujitchoudhry) and on Facebook.

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