America has been both a constitutional republic and a representative democracy for over 225 years. During that period, we have continually redefined what those terms meant and what people they applied to. The constitution has been amended 27 times. 15 of these changes have expanded and enumerated the rights of citizens, while 7 have codified states’ rights and electoral procedures.
Our Constitution declares that the states shall determine how we vote in congressional districts, and how we tally those district votes in presidential elections. Indeed, re-drawing the map on how a congressional district is composed within a state is mandated every 10 years. So calling for election reform is not particularly unusual. Reform is particularly needed now, because our polarized congressional representatives appear incapable of reaching necessary compromises to enact important fiscal reforms needed to remove economic threats to our country and its future.
How Did we Get Here?
Gerrymandering by state legislatures over the last 15 years has contributed mightily to our dysfunctional congress.”Packing” has been used to push minorities, racial or political, into compressed districts to diminish their influence into only one district. The “cracking” technique draws voting districts so as to disperse minority votes across several districts in attempts to deny or dilute minority representation. The following chart illustrates how many Members of Congress represent “safe” districts. If incumbents can’t realistically be voted out, challenges to them decrease, and our voting rights are diminished.
The chart also shows the success of state Republican legislatures in maximizing their party’s results in the US House. Of the 345 congressional districts that lean strongly to either party, one would expect that the party split would mirror the underlying population. A Gallup Poll of likely voters in 2012 found that 47% of Americans self identify as Democrats and 42% self identify as Republicans. Yet the “safe” Republican districts account for 42% of the House, and Republicans are able to contest another 90 seats, an additional 20% of the house. The magic of drawing partisan districts explains how Republicans could have lost the popular vote for the House in 2012 by more than a million votes nationally, yet kept control of the House by 33 seats.
The methodology for drawing congressional voting districts is easily subverted by the party in power doing the drawing, and in 1964 the Supreme Court ruled that congressional districts must be contiguous in order to be constitutional. This sounds reasonable, until one looks at the contortions employed to produce some very strange looking districts. Take for example theIllinois4th. It was intended to pack Hispanics, and is also known as the “earmuff district”, and is shown below. Unfortunately, there are many more such examples of oddly drawn districts.
Delegating specific responsibilities to the states results in the development of various responses to the same problem. The states are all over the spectrum in terms of the primary systems that they employ. 20 states allow each party to determine whether primary voters must already be registered as a party member (a closed primary). In 13 states, voters are able to declare themselves a party member and vote in the primary on primary day (a semi-open primary), and in 17 states voters are able to vote without declaring as a party member (an open primary).
Washington and California use a top two primary, which allows unaffiliated voters to vote for any candidate in a primary. The top two vote-getters from any party proceed to a final election. This system, which of course infuriates party officials, is meant to produce general election candidates who have the broadest appeal within the district. Proponents of the top two system think closed single party primaries exacerbate the radicalization that often occurs at the primary stage, when candidates must cater to their party’s “base” rather than the political center.
The top two primary is a positive electoral change that could easily be adopted across the country. The problem would still be that the congressional districts themselves are being gerrymandered in clear attempts to rob some of us our our democratic rights. Elections for the US Senate take place across every state instead of only house districts, and they are usually more competitive than House elections. If statewide elections are both more competitive and are not subject to gerrymandering, what changes in primary election procedures could capture these benefits in House elections?
The most intriguing idea is the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Under STV, a voter has a single vote that is initially allocated to his or her most preferred candidate. As the count proceeds on election night and candidates are either elected or eliminated, that vote is transferred to other candidates according to the voter’s stated preferences. The exact method of reapportioning votes can vary, but the STV attempts to avoid “wasted” votes as compared to a simple one person, one vote system, because presumably it is better to count a voter’s second choice than to give that voter no voice. This system can be used for either one person or multiple person elections.
Maineand Nebraskause proportional voting for presidential elections, which are statewide and not subject to tampering by gerrymandering. Rather than winner take all for electors, each political party can claim some portion of the votes. But then when they vote for the House, these states revert to voting in gerrymandered districts. Some argue that the states should give redistricting authority to non-partisan groups. This never seems to resolve the issues, and is made even more problematic whenever a state loses a House district through relative population changes, because as in the game of musical chairs, there is always a clear loser in such cases.
In the past few weeks local news in NY was dominated by the mayoral primaries, which were won resoundingly by Democrat Bill DeBlasio and by Republican Joe Lhota. If this had been an open primary, Bill Thompson, a Democrat, would be facing DeBlasio in the general election. Thompson received more than five times as many votes as Lhota. In fact, three other Democrats, Christine Quinn, John Liu and even the disgraced Anthony Weiner (a/k/a Carlos Danger) received more votes than Lhota. In November, voters will chose between the most progressive Democrat and a Republican, and a moderate, centrist candidate with perhaps the broadest appeal to all voters will not be on the ballot. The latest poll shows DeBlasio at 62% among eligible voters, more than 40% ahead of Lhota.
The preferred change would be to incorporate widespread use of the top two primary system in house elections. Ideally voters would vote in statewide elections, but this is impracticable in larger states that have many representatives such asCalifornia (55) andTexas (38). No matter how voting districts are drawn, more moderate voices should be capable of being elected if much of the country was less tied to a traditional two party primary system that is not working well forAmerica.