“We have to fix that.” So said Barack Obama in his victory speech on election night 2012, referring to the long lines that plagued elections in some states. He was right — we should do everything feasible to eliminate barriers to participation in our democracy — but predictably, there hasn’t been much follow-up since the election.
Why “predictably”? Because the system has become so corrupt, both dominant parties so invested in anti-democratic mechanisms that help them hold on to power, that we’d be naive to expect establishment leaders to lead the way to reform. The truth is, our democracy is in dire need of strengthening, it goes a lot deeper than long lines, and it’s going to take a sustained grassroots effort to get it done.
What would constitute the “fix” for our democracy? As a group, CG4Tx is well-positioned to articulate a set of achievable reforms that would make a real difference. We’d like to hear what reforms you consider most important, most valuable, and most achievable.
Here are my personal favorites — all, I hope, having broad appeal across the political spectrum:
1. No more gerrymandering. If you find someone who disagrees with this, chances are he or she works for a political party. How is less important than finding the political will to do it. Whether the solution is algorithmic district-line-drawing, or an independent commission, or something else, anything would be better than what we have now.
2. Allocate presidential electors proportionally, not winner-take-all. If you live in a “red” or “blue” state, your vote in presidential elections doesn’t count for much, because whichever candidate wins a plurality of the state’s votes wins all of its electors. Only a few “purple” states are considered battlegrounds by the campaigns — and voters in those states have outsized influence. It doesn’t have to be this way — each state can decide to divide their electors proportionally. That’s the fair way to do it, which doesn’t disenfranchise large segments of the electorate.
It could be a bit tricky getting this one done, because winner-take-all states are controlled by partisans who don’t want to give up the extra (unfair) weight their states have. Once again, it’s primarily a matter of political will — if we have that, we will find a way. But in fact, this proposal is just a stop-gap measure on the way to the next item:
3. Join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. I think most Americans would agree the Electoral College itself is undemocratic — but it would take a Constitutional amendment to get rid of it. There’s a way around it, though: the states can agree to instruct their electors to vote for whichever ticket wins the popular vote nationwide. The agreement would only take effect when enough states had joined to constitute a majority of the Electoral College (270 electoral votes). The compact has already been joined by nine states and DC, comprising 136 electoral votes.
4. Disclosure of all campaign contributions above $2000. Campaign finance reform is essential in these times of revolving-door politics and lobbyists so powerful, they draft the laws applying to their own industry. I think we should have monetary limits as well as an end to corporate contributions. But that gets into more contentious territory. Perhaps we can at least agree that disclosure of contributions, above a certain threshold amount, is necessary for purposes of transparency.
5. Voting systems must be secure, transparent and verifiable. In the world’s oldest democracy, there should never be any question about the integrity of votes. There’s been plenty of research in the last decade or so on how to ensure this. It’s time to implement the best ideas, as Travis County is doing with the new STAR voting system.
6. Adopt instant-runoff voting (IRV) to allow for more competition by eliminating the spoiler effect. We have a de facto two-party system in this country, not de jure — in fact, the Constitution doesn’t mention political parties at all. The main structural reason our system favors two dominant parties is the “spoiler effect”: the fact that a third-party candidate can split the vote, thus “spoiling” the candidacy of a major-party candidate. And the spoiler effect results from the use of plurality voting, which means the winner doesn’t have to get a majority of votes, just more than any other candidate.
Runoff elections can be used to arrive at a majority when the first round of voting does not yield one. IRV is a better version of a runoff election. By eliminating the spoiler effect, it would remove the major structural feature in our system that suppresses third parties. Competition between more parties would mean better accountability and more robust debate of important issues.
7. Encourage voter participation: set limits on waiting times, promote online registration, require an early voting option, etc. In a democracy, the people are sovereign. Of course, we should do everything possible to make sure their voices are heard. It’s the kind of thing Obama was talking about on election night. Most people who oppose voter participation will have a hard time saying so out loud.
8. Reasonable requirements for ballot access. In Texas, a new party has to collect 50,000 signatures in 60 days in order to be listed on the ballot — a high bar for an organization that likely doesn’t have millions of dollars to spend on a petition campaign. We shouldn’t be excluding alternative voices, at a time when we face so many urgent problems that demand creative solutions. We should encourage a thriving free marketplace of ideas, where parties rise or fall based on how well they serve the public.
These are some examples of concrete, achievable steps we could take to restore our democracy to health. What are your thoughts on electoral reform? Please add them in the comments section below.