Sunday, June 22, 2014

Three Reforms

TL:DR - Our political process is broken, to fix it we need to stop letting every rich person or company that wants to influence policy spend as much as they like trying to elect people who will therefore be beholden to them, stop letting which ever party is in power draw district lines to artificially skew representation in their own favor, by creating increasingly safe districts for both parties (but more of them for their own, with fewer, even less politically diverse districts for their opponents) and change the way we vote so that your second, third, fourth, and so on choices are also considered, allowing you to vote for who you want, then who you'd prefer, then who'd you accept, and then who you really would rather not have, removing the requirement that you vote not so much as for one person, as against that person's opponent (who ACTUALLY voted for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein?). Doing so would allow moderates to get (and stay) elected, and third party candidates to actually see how much support they have when people aren't forced to chose the most likely winner they don't hate.

*Edit* And if you are convinced about these reforms here's an organization that's doing something about them and other reforms aimed at fixing our electoral process.

The political process is, to my mind, and apparently that of about 93% of America, broken. Never have we been so united about how terribly our government is doing it's job, and so divided on who's to blame. I, as a liberal, find it oh so easy to blame conservatives, the Tea Party, and the Republicans. I could point to their stated primary goal of making Obama a one term president, or their insistence on denying even the existence of anthropogenic climate change, or their overuse of the filibuster, or their holding the countries finances and thus economy hostage in order to try to score a political victory. All of this I have done as have other liberals, but the fact is that I'm biased and I can find plenty of instances of liberals taking a political victory over a compromise that would actually help the American people. Why do we have this state of affairs? I propose that it is because of a structural problem with our democracy which has become more evident as time wears on and the political process becomes increasingly important in people's lives. We have a system which rewards ideological purity over statesmanship and effective compromise building, one which almost mandates a two party system, and one which is heavily polluted by special interests and money. Our political duopoly has created a scenario of constant campaign and almost no actual governing, and it has led to a bifurcation of the populace, with a shrinking group of people in the middle, and a growing group of people who are so fed up with the system that they reject it out of hand. We have a system which encourages secrecy and deceit, and discourages candidness.

  I refuse to accept this as an inherent flaw in the democratic system, but rather as a bug, which can be fixed with the proper application of reforms. The first is campaign finance reform, which I've written about before and won't go over again. The others are redistricting reform, and voting reform.

Redistricting reform is something you may have heard about, or more likely the problem which it aims to correct, gerrymandering. The problem is that we allow politicians to draw up voting districts, which back in the days of limited data, was not a big problem because mostly politicians just used common sense and tried to keep districts fairly normally shaped. Increasingly however politicians and their partisan advisers have complex population data which allows them to craft districts which are very safe for their party, while limiting the number of safe or even competitive districts the other party has. This happens every 10 years, and 4 years ago Republicans used their newly gained power in many states to draw up districts that allowed them to win over 53% of the house seats in 2012 with under 49% of the vote. This however is not really the problem, though it irks me as a liberal. The problem is that we've allowed political parties to create districts designed to be "safe" for their candidate. While of course it is inevitable that some regions of the country will be overwhelmingly supportive of some ideology or party, intentionally creating such districts in toxic to our political process. The reason for this is simple. Instead of trying to find a compromise, appeal to moderates of both parties, and focus on the general election when the most people are going to vote, in a great many districts the focus is on the primary. This is highlighted by the Tea Party wing of the Republican party which has been very effective and winning high profile primaries and forcing the entire party towards the extreme right wing. Democrats however are no doubt concerned in many of their districts more with getting the nomination than with appealing to those in the middle, much less the other side. This means that extremism is rewarded and bipartisanship is more of a liability than an asset. The solution for this could be non-partisan panels, or perhaps even better, simply an algorithm which takes population data and creates districts which minimize distance to the reasonable polling stations for each district while keeping the districts with equal populations. No potential for gerrymandering, and an almost guaranteed increase in the number of competitive districts.

Perhaps even more important than redistricting reform (though not as important in my estimation as campaign finance reform) is voting reform. I mentioned the need for candidates to aim for moderate voters from both parties, since doing so would allow them to reach across the aisle, made deals which allow legislation to go forward, and preferably, to do so while using the ideologies and expertise of all politicians to create particularly robust laws which work to improve the nation for all, regardless of political preference. In order for this to happen however, we cannot continue to use a voting system which is absolutely rife with inherent flaws. The most important of these flaws is the obvious encouragement of strategic voting. Strategic voting is something nearly everyone does, including myself, every time they vote. At its most basic it means choosing who you vote for by criteria other than who you most want to win. Generally this is expressed by people of all political ideologies choosing either a Republican or a Democrat, even though there may well be people in the race who they would rather have voted for, because they know that a vote for their preferred person is a vote thrown away. This means that people who vote for their preferred choice, something I think we can all agree is a good thing, are often effectively disenfranchised, their voice unheard. To many this seems like an intractable problem, inherent to the whole concept of voting, however that is only true in our (America's) most common voting technique. There are many systems out there which aim to correct for this problem, including one which California has adopted known as "Ranked Choice Voting" or "Instant Runoff". In this system you may vote for as many candidates you would like, in order from most preferred to least preferred. Then when the votes are counted, if one person got a majority of the first choice votes then he or she is the winner, if not then the person who got the fewest is eliminated and everyone who chose that person has their vote switched to their second choice. This continues until one person has a majority. It ensures that voting for one candidate doesn't make any other candidate you might chose less likely to be elected, so long as they are also on your ballot. The only way a candidate can be hurt by your vote is if someone you placed higher than them gets elected. This system works well for eliminating strategic voting, and giving voters the option to honestly voice their opinion as to who should win without fear of disenfranchisement. It does little however to increase bipartisanship or moderate candidates. Instead I support what's known as "condorcet voting" The process of casting a ballot remains the same as the ranked choice, with each voter placing their choices in order from favorite to least favorite. The winner however is chosen by comparing all candidates in the field to each other as if it were a two person race, and finding the candidate who is ranked higher than all the others by a majority of the voters. This is difficult to understand, but the math isn't actually that hard. I'd suggest googling it if you want more details on how it works. What it does better than ranked choice however, is allow a nuanced vote from each voter, since it is not simply a matter of who gets the most first place votes, but also who is commonly accepted as a better option than most. In such a system a candidate could win not because they were beloved by many people, but because they were respected, or at least not reviled, by most people. This could well encourage moderates from both parties, both the voters and the candidates, to take back some control from the more extreme wings, and in so doing create a real middle ground where deals can be made and legislation drafted.

Ultimately what we want is a representative democracy where the people elected are generally respected by those they represent, even by many who disagree with much of their ideology. One where Republicans, instead of slavishly sticking by "no new taxes" and "small government" could focus on improving efficiency without limiting the scope or quality of much needed programs. One in which Democrats, instead of seeing any criticism of the cost of our social safety net and the problem of constant state dependency could instead work with Republicans to find solutions that actually improve the financial status of impoverished Americans, thereby changing them from a burden on the state to an asset. What we want is a system which uses passionate, well informed difference of opinion to craft legislation which is more effective than what either side could have created without opposition, one which views political opponents not as enemies but as partners. We need to chance our political process in order to change our political outcomes. Rather than rejecting politicians and the political process and pointless and out of touch, lets work to improve is, and bring it back in touch.

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