10 November 2016

6 Reforms to Save American Democracy

The majority of voters in this year's US presidential election said that they were inspired to vote against the opponent, rather than for their candidate. On the sidelines sits the most dysfunctional Congress that any living person has ever known (Americans are four times more likely to approve of the Internal Revenue Service). This, at a time when several slow-moving issues could eat out the soft innards of America's economy and leave memories of a once-great power. If there was ever a time to talk about major reforms to the political order, it is now. 

Here, I'll lay out some of the ideas that I've come across over the years of contemplating power and democracy. Minor tweaks in the election process create vastly different outcomes. The United States has the longest running constitution in the world, and it is a testimony to the foresight of the founders that it has worked so well, for so long. But it is a big ship letting in water, slowly sinking while the people who should be fixing it are fighting with each other over who gets to be captain. There is a pessimist inside me saying that it will sink no matter what, but the optimist wrote this article.

I listed these in order of feasibility. Tweaking how primaries work is a no-brainer and easy to implement at different levels. A constitutional amendment, however, requires a proposal from two thirds of Congress (or two third of states), then ratification by three fourths of states. The chance of Congress proposing an amendment that reduces their own power is unlikely, but this is not a thought experiment in what is likely, it's a brainstorm session on a better democracy. 

1. Ranked Choice

Any casual observer can see the problem of increased polarization, with politicians becoming more extreme and less moderate on issues. The main culprit behind this is the primary system that encourages candidates to play to their party's base during primaries, resulting in an extreme choice that the other side reviles. The primaries entrench the monopoly of the two main political parties. In a district that always swings Republican, the election is won in the primary among a subset of registered party members. This entrenchment of the monopoly is made worse with redistricting by politicians that use gerrymandering to reduce ideological competition. 

In my state of Oregon several ballot measures have appeared (and failed) that would create an "open primary" system where all candidates of any party get to be on the same primary ticket, and anybody can vote. The top two then would go to a runoff election where they are the only candidates. The explicit intention of the ballot's supporters was to reduce the power of political parties and create more moderate election results. However this kind of open primary system can still be corrupted by parties forming and running private primaries, with others splitting the electorate. There is a far better system called ranked choice (aka instant runoff). 

In a ranked choice election, voters may select several candidates for a position, and rank them in order of preference. Everyone only gets one vote, but if your first vote is not the winner, then your vote goes to the second choice, and so on. This might sound complicated at first, but mathematically it is very simple and once all the votes are entered, it spits out a winner. Typically when this is implemented, if the winner does not have more than 50% of the vote, then it becomes a top two runoff situation. 

The benefits of a ranked choice vote are clear. It greatly reduces the power of political parties and allows third party candidates to actually compete without throwing the election to the side that didn't split the vote. It forces all candidates to play to the ideological center and court the entire electorate. It gives voters more choices and more power. It reduces the amount of money required to run. It potentially reduces the amount of times people have to vote (thus cost) by combining the primary with the general election. It reduces negative campaigning because "if I'm not your first choice, make me second". 

This type of voting is already in practice around the world, and in some US cities. It should spread to all levels, including Congressional and Presidential elections. 

2. Replace the Electoral College

With what?

Everyone I know thinks that the electoral college used for electing the US President is made for horse and buggy days and needs replacing, but there are two major benefits that it offers. 

Look around the world and you'll see parliamentary governments with numerous small parties that have to rally together to elect the prime minister. These multi-party systems are inferior to America's two-party duopoly. Don't kid yourself, you don't want the President to be elected by 30% of people casting votes. No third party has been able to make a dent because the electoral college forces everyone into one of two camps, and that means that at least half of voters selected the winner*, which is better than a popular vote where the winner takes less than half, or third parties splitting the vote and weakening their "side", or populous urban areas simply dominating every election.

The electoral college also makes it easy to perform a recount. Close elections are won by a few swing counties in a few swing states, meaning a recount or contested election only has to deal with a few counties. A contested popular vote would have to recount 100 million votes, meaning you might as well just vote again.

Both of these benefits can be maintained with a nationwide ranked choice vote. That way every vote actually counts, you get all the benefits described previously, and if there is no candidate with a majority, then the top two go to a runoff where one person will definitely receive a majority. The problem of recounting can be resolved by making the runoff election similar to the electoral college, but by county or district instead of by state.

3. Vote by Mail

In 2000 my state became the first to run elections entirely by mail. It has boosted participation by 10% and reduced the cost of elections. Since then Washington and Colorado joined the club. Once the majority of states arrive in the 20th century, we'll work on online voting. 

4. Reduce the Election Cycle

The US election cycle is beyond comprehension. Presidential candidates start lining up two years in advance of the vote, and most Americans dread the endless negative advertisements and bemoan the huge piles of cash required to even be considered a candidate. Almost every country in the world has a law limiting the campaign season. From Mexico to Canada, France, UK, and Turkey, a three month campaign is considered lengthy or illegal. France typically elects their president in two weeks. But in America a full freaking year before the election is considered too late to join the race.

Let's take this one in baby steps. Congress should pass a law that no candidate may formally campaign earlier than six months before the vote. This is easy to enforce because it is tied to spending money on campaigning. Primaries, conventions, rallies, dirt digging, and advertisements all have to be in that still-outrageously-long six month window. Then once we have a standard and a few elections behind us, a future Congress could easily adjust that to a still-sort-of-too-long four month window. 

Reducing money in politics is a tricky business. Reducing the election cycles is a simple and effective way to reduce the amount of money required to campaign. If the president needs hundreds of millions of dollars from donors to be elected, then you won't see a president that doesn't owe serious favors. 

5. Reduce Ballot Measures

To put it simply, ballot measures (aka propositions) are the crack cocaine of democracy. Once you start, it's really really hard to get off of it. The US Constitution has no direct democracy. Citizens are not entitled to vote on any issue, even changes to the Constitution. The United States is a democratic republic. We elect people who make decisions. It is not a democracy, it is a republic! Ballot measures only appeared about a hundred years ago, and initially they were meant to be a forum for major issues, a kind of safety valve to make sure politicians don't totally screw over the public. But they have gotten out of control in many states. Voters consistently vote to: reduce taxes on themselves, increase services, increase prison sentences, increases veterans' benefits, tax the wealthy or corporations, fund high visibility projects, did I mention reduce taxes?

States like California have been so battered with contradictory propositions by special interests that someone actually proposed a vote to eliminate all previous propositions. The state's budget is mostly allocated by these public referendums that are easy to control with advertising money, so the legislature has very little room to actually legislate. 

Citizens typically don't have a full picture of the issues and priorities behind the ballot measures; only a small handful have the time and skills to do the research to vote intelligently. An even smaller number stop to ask the question: is this the type of issue that belongs in a ballot measure, or should it be passed by the legislature?

Some clarity and reform needs to come about. The measures should be vetted by the state itself, either before or after the vote. This makes it difficult to act as a safety valve, but the initiatives should be written by lawyers and lawmakers who know the language of law so that they are clear and feasible. The only ones allowed to be put to a vote should be on major issues, such as constitutional change that affects the very nature of the state; things that require the moral authority that comes from a referendum of the public. 

6. Fix Congress

Fixing Congress is the most complicated issue. There are some practical tweaks to the existing system: in the Senate change the filibuster-breaking number from 60 to 40, make limits of 2 consecutive terms (6 years each), confirm appointments automatically after 90 days of inactivity, ban unrelated earmarks, change budgeting to biennial and multi-year spends, and redistrict to avoid gerrymandering.

Then take a look at the big picture. If you were sitting at the Continental Congress debating what kind of government the states should be united under, what would it be? I would start by adjusting state boundaries from the somewhat arbitrary ones now to something more balanced (sorry Rhode Island). If the Senate bases political power on state governments, then there should be a more rational arrangement of the states. Small states should be combined and stretch along natural transportation corridors, centered on major metropolitan areas. There would be fewer states, and each would have more resources.

Each state would get one senator, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state legislature, leaving about 40 senators. Then I would leave the House of Representatives pretty much the same as it is now, based on population and with a large number of representatives.

Term limits are the most simple and popular way to change Congress. Any decision-making body gets stale without new blood and new ideas. 12 years is plenty long to avoid short-timer problems, and they could always take a break and run again after getting some practical experience in the real world.

Final Thought

All these ideas are procedural changes. They are important, but they must be combined with cultural and social changes. For example, the country's political divide is being further pushed apart by echo chamber media that only confirms one's own views while denigrating another. People have to listen to each other with compassion, use a kindly tongue, and build strong local communities.

Most important, in my experience, it is good to travel and get to know people that are totally different from yourself. If you're confused about Trump being elected, go find someone who supported him and really listen to what they say. They voted for him despite his sexist comments, not because of them. The Soviet Union thought they were fighting against greed and oppression of workers, while the US thought they were fighting against an evil ruthless empire. If you have an enemy, go talk to them.


* I realize that in the electoral college you can with with less than half of the popular vote, but the winner has to be very close to half

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