Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fixing Our Stupid, Stupid Elections

I voted for Barack Obama, so I'm not arguing for election reform because my guy lost the Presidential election. I'm arguing for election reform because what we have now is a kluge of obsolete systems manipulated and exploited by certain powerful groups to ensure that only certain people, with certain opinions, within a very small range of political beliefs, ever hold political power. Simply put, because of how our two-party system has evolved over the years, we have reached a state where the American people have the vote, but very little power. Many of us don't vote even vote at all, and, too often, those of us who do, do so grudgingly, holding our nose, voting against a worst possible outcome rather than for a preferred candidate.

The truly frustrating part of our stupid, stupid elections, is the ease with which they could be fixed. Of course, though all of these fixes are logistically, even constitutionally easy, they are damn near impossible, because those who have the power to change the current election system were elected by it and thus have the least motivation to change it. Of course, if your goal is an election system that truly represents the will of the voting citizenship, there really aren't any arguments against massive election reform. So, in order of ease of en-action here are the steps we should take to fix our stupid, stupid election systems. (One more note: most of these ideas have been kicking around for quite a while with varying levels of advocacy.)

Instant Run-Off Voting: Instant run-off ballots would look pretty much exactly like current ballots, with one big difference, instead of voting for one person per position, you would be able to designate your 1st, 2nd and 3rd choice per position. When the ballots are first counted, everyone's first choice is counted. If no candidate gets 51% of the vote (or “first past the post,” though I could see an argument made for that “post” being a higher percentage) the candidate with the lowest vote total is dropped from the race. If the dropped candidate was your first choice, then your second choice vote is counted for that candidate. Rinse and repeat until one candidate gets 51% (or whatever) of the vote. You know, it's the basic run-off structure, but it happens instantly. There are two key benefits to the instant run-off election. The first is that you can never “throw your vote away.” If a third party candidate's beliefs are closest to yours, you can make that candidate your first choice and make the lesser of two evils candidate your second choice. If the third party candidate doesn't get much traction, your vote will get to the safe major party candidate. In short, you can actually vote for what you believe in, not the least offensive of the two major party candidates. The second key benefit; the first vote count would be an accurate representation of what the American people actually fucking want. Sure, most of the time, I imagine the winner of the election would ultimately be a member of one of the two major parties; but the winners would know for sure--no polling bias or pundit interpretations in the way--the spectrum of political beliefs of their constituents.

Open Primaries: Given that races tend to be between a Democrat and a Republican, their nomination processes constitute, perhaps, the majority of the electoral process, and most of the time, most Americans have very little to do with the nomination process. Whether its backroom deals, closed primaries, or other methods of deciding who runs, when it comes time to vote, most of the time, most of the decision has been made for you. In Open Primaries, there would be one primary per position in which everybody can vote and anybody who can reach a reasonable signature threshold (we could even piggy-back on current election procedures) can run. Voters then vote for their four favorite candidates out of the pool of everybody and the four candidates with the most votes are on the ballot, along with the incumbent, in the official election. Does this mean there could be elections where five Republicans or five Democrats run against each other? Of course, but in those situations, the candidates will actually have to campaign. Rather than focusing all of their campaign effort on “undecided voters,” (You know, the thing that happens when unicorns mate with griffins in a waterfall of leprechaun tears.) they will have to speak to their entire constituency.

Taken together, instant run-off elections and open primaries will go a long way in breaking the stranglehold the two-party system has on our elections. Not only will they result in more third party and independent representation at all levels of government, they will also produce the most accurate data on political belief in this country. And, because states are responsible for much of the logistics of voting, these reforms could be enacted state by state. Sure, most of the time a Democrat or Republican will win, but that particular Democrat or Republican will have proven herself to her entire constituency, and know exactly to what degree her constituents support her election.

Repeal the Electoral College: Contrary to what some might say (Hi, Drew!) the Electoral College was not designed to ensure sparsely populated portions of the country were represented in the choice of President (more on that later). It was designed because the Founding Fathers didn't believe poor white men were capable of choosing a President. In the original Constitution, citizens only actually voted for their state legislatures and their House representatives; the state legislators selected the state's Senators and electors. In short, the Electoral College is an archaically elitist institution. Since then, the process of the Electoral College has kluged along with the development of the two-party system. In terms of the Electoral College protecting the interests of sparsely populated areas; there is no way that argument can be made without also saying people who live in cities don't count as much as people who live in suburbs. Take California and Wyoming. California had about 18,245,970 registered voters in the last election and 55 Electoral College votes (the most in the country.) Wyoming had 218,056 and 3 Electoral votes. Do some division and move the decimal point six places to the right and you get: each registered voter in California had 3.014 Electorinos. Each Wyoming voter had 13.757 Electorinos. Essentially, if you live in Wyoming, you have over three times the presidential electoral voice of someone living in California. (Since only one state counts, Ohio had 2.304 Electorinos.) No matter how you formulate the defense of the rural argument, you end up also saying that voters in cities and densely populated states deserve less of a voice in Presidential elections.

Most of the time, however, the Electoral College vote matches the popular vote anyway, so what would getting rid of the Electoral College accomplish? It would radically change how Presidential campaigns operate. First of all, the votes in “safe” states would actually count. It would matter whether the Democrat got 60% or 70% of the vote in Cambridge. And, much to the relief of everyone in Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania, there would be no more swing states. Presidential candidates would actually have to speak to the entire nation in their campaigns rather than just motivating their base and targeting the states and demographics potentially up for grabs. Add in the two reforms from above and you have a Presidential election that actually represents the political will of the people.

A third reason for eliminating the Electoral College has risen in recent weeks; the beginning of brazen, shameless, cynical, underhanded, dishonest, efforts of Republican legislatures in swing states to prevent Democrats from ever winning them again. By changing how Electoral College votes are allocated, several states, starting with Virginia, in what has to be the most overt, unrepentant pissing in the eye of democracy I think we've ever seen, are changing the rules so a Republican candidate is more likely to win the election without winning the popular vote. If the proposed changes were in effect in November in the states under discussion, Romney would have one the Electoral College while losing the popular vote 47% to 51%.

It would take a Constitutional amendment to eliminate the Electoral College, which is why it's third in this list, but there is a good chance it will be the first (if not only) of these reforms adopted. Since it's so clearly ridiculous and obsolete, there's always some national momentum for it around elections, and Republican controlled states are drawing attention to how unfair it really is. Regardless, it is exponentially more likely to happen then either of the two reforms that round out the list.

Corporations Are Not People: This time around the dark money allowed by the Citizens United decision didn't demonstrably sway elections, but if I've learned one thing from 20th century American history it's that the wealthy with questionable ethics are patient and determined. They didn't get the results they wanted this time around, so their strategy will change, their focus will change, and they will get results. If not the next election, then the one after it. It's only a matter of time before the Super-PACs learn (or steal) the techniques of successful grassroots political organizers and apply them (with a healthy mix of more traditional ruthless techniques thrown in) to their goals. The root of the problem though, really isn't Citizens United, but Santa Clara County vs Southern Pacific Railroad, which ruled corporations were guaranteed some protections under the 14th amendment. From there corporate personhood has only grown. I'm not going to argue against corporate personhood here if for no other reason than I have never heard a single reasonable argument in its favor (which is not to say corporations should not have legal protections). By far, the most efficient way to deal with the issue of corporate personhood is a Constitutional amendment that distinguishes the protections afforded to corporations from those afforded to people who can get sick and die and somehow never end up too big to fail. And, given that all political donations by corporations are drawn from potential dividends for shareholders or wages for employees, I would think strictly regulating corporate political contributions totally reasonable.

Much like the Electoral College, there's a fair amount of momentum for an amendment that at least addresses some of the problems caused by corporate personhood, a momentum drawn, at least partially, from the fact that “corporate personhood,” doesn't make any fucking sense. Furthermore, it's been reported that there's some willingness in the Supreme Court to revisit at least the issue of campaign finance reform, so there actually is a legitimate chance this could happen. But there's no fuckin' way for the next reform.

Congressional Districts are Drawn by a Non-Partisan Division of the Census Bureau: Why is Congress so fucking awful and yet the same fucking fuckers keep getting fucking elected? Because state legislatures draw Congressional districts and they draw them to create “safe” districts in which, historically and demographically, their party always wins. It's called gerrymandering (fantastic word, by the way) and we only tend to notice it when it's really, obscenely egregious. (Shout out to Virginia again!) But even practiced in moderation, it has ensured there really isn't a lot of actual competition for the House of Representatives. So, you can have elections, like the last one, where Democrats running in the House received the majority of votes nationwide, but didn't gain a majority in the House. Before the development of the modern two-party system, letting States draw their own districts made sense, especially considering the kind of Federalism around at the writing of the Constitution and the limits of demographic data. But now, there are no data limits and our Federalism has changed. Congressional districts should be redraw by a non-partisan entity (the Census Bureau makes the most sense because they already have the data) with only two goals in mind: fair distribution of Electorinos (which are equal to a voter's voice in Congress) and logistical convenience. Essentially, districts would all have about the same number of people in them, within the frame work of the 435 member House, and they would be drawn to make it as easy as possible for the most number of voters to get to a polling place. Can you imagine what elections in this country would look like if every one were an actual competition?

This reform is the last one the list because it would probably take an Amendment and there's no fucking way state legislatures would give up this power. I mean, the only argument for it, is that it would ensure our elected officials actually represent the beliefs of those they elect them, so, yeah, that's about it.

A Note on One Absence: You notice I haven't mentioned term limits. I actually don't think term limits solve anything. The election of individuals really isn't the problem, the problem is that only certain types of people with certain beliefs will be elected. Term limits would only change the names on the jerseys, not the teams playing the game. Furthermore, I think they ask the wrong question about the pathetic state of our elections. The question isn't “Should someone be allowed unlimited terms in office?” but “why do these jabronis keep getting elected?” The problem is not that these certain people are elected over and over again, but that they are elected in the first place, in the context of a system that radically constrains our choice.

Of course, the problem with our elections is not that we don't know how to fix them. The problem with our elections is that they work for some people and those people end up with the power to decide how our elections work. Rational self-interest dictates there isn't a single elected official truly motivated to change the process that elected them. Which leads us directly into the chicken-and-egg problem that makes daddy drink. We need election reform to get people with an actual interest in meaningful election reform elected. In some ways, a lot of progress can be made at the state level (see Virginia again, except for the bizaaro version of everything I've talked about) and the Constitution has been amended in the past, so what I've proposed isn't impossible. But can we get all the needed reforms through in time to create a government whose policies will actually deal with climate change before it's too late or solve the radical wealth disparity before the next stock market crash? Well, mix daddy a martini.

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