Can Anything Improve the Situation?
The US Congress is rated about as low as any institution in the country could be. NO ONE is happy – not right, not left, not in between. People used to like their own representatives if not the institution, but that is increasingly no longer the case, either.
This has implications. Over time, it fuels skepticism about the viability of democracy and whether our citizenship means anything. We decide that is “just the way it is” at our peril.
But what to do? As we approach national elections in November, let us review a number of recommendations that are circulating. None of them terrible, some of them quite promising in my view. None could take effect anytime soon, but down the road? Let’s take a look, in no particular order.
1. Open Primaries:As is practiced in California, this system requires everyone running for office to compete in one big primary. If no one gets a majority, the top two go into a runoff. Could be two Republicans, two Democrats – any combination. I had doubts about this early on, but the evidence is impressive (if imperfect) in two regards: (1) Running only to fire up your base is a losing strategy. The process rewards moderation and outreach. (2) Voters seem to be increasingly sophisticated, voting not just for the candidate they like best, but one they find agreeable that has the best chance of winning. There is a lot to like here.
2. Rank Choice Voting:As recently used in Maine, this asks the citizen to vote for everyone running, ranking candidates from their favorite to their least favorite. If one candidate receives an outright majority of first choices, he/she wins. If no candidate wins, the candidate with the lowest number of first choices is eliminated, and all those voters are counted for their second choice. The process repeats until a candidate has a majority. This offers two attributes: it eliminates costly runoffs and the voter does not have to bet “all or nothing” on one candidate. Voters have said they like this, as they often have more than one candidate they like. This lets them express that, in a consequential way.
3. Term Limits: An oldie but a goodie. There was a time I liked this idea, but the more I think about it, the less I like it. Voters should, in principle, have the option to return people to office as they wish (see item 6, below, for an ameliorating option). The greater problem is that no one else has term limits – committee staff, civil servants, lobbyists all keep at it for years. They know the secrets and the mechanics. Only the rookie legislator is unfamiliar with how to make things work. That happens anytime we get a new legislator but mandating turnover at a frequent rate seems ineffective. Still, I understand the appeal and if someone offered a grand compromise that included this option paired with one or more of the others listed here, I could live with it. Who knows, this might be a valuable option. I willing to find out in the right circumstances.
4. Public Financed Elections: This concept offends something in all of us – why should we pay someone to run, and the ability to fundraise is one indication of ability and levels of support. Still, many other advanced democracies have some version of public funding for the simple reason they find politicians being bought an odious alternative. Talk to any member of congress and most will tell you they hate fundraising, the time it takes, and the links it creates. Controlling costs and contributions pays huge dividends. This would be a tough fight among some judges and among politicians who are doing quite nicely under the current morass.
5. Rebuild the Federal Election Commission: The primary body for enforcing election laws and regulations at the national level has been a handicapped joke for years. Whichever party is out of power cannot get replacement commissioners approved, so they lack working majorities, and nothing gets done. On top of that, reporting processes and timelines look more like the 18thcentury than the 21stcentury. The first national candidate who proposes realistic fixes and empowerment here will get my attention, and likely my support.
6. Non-Partisan Redistricting: To say that redistricting is broken would be the understatement of the century. Both parties gerrymander (although the Republicans have taken it to a new level, reinforced with voter suppression). The standard line about the way redistricting is done in most states now is that voters don’t pick their legislators, legislators pick their voters. This is at the core of our failing democracy. Iowa led the way with citizen commissions that are not bipartisan but are nonpartisan. Other jurisdictions are looking into this and there are many groups supporting it, experts explaining it, etc. If we don’t take redistricting out of the hands of politicians, we have little to hope for in the future. Know that those politicians will fight this like nothing else.
Well, there we are. While we fight it out in the coming months on issues and candidates, let’s keep our focused on these failures. Demand results that honor our votes and validate our governance. Where does your favorite candidate stand on these options and what is she/he offering to do about any of them?