This is How We Radically Fix American Democracy

If you still think America is a shining beacon of democracy, here is an inconvenient truth for you: The average turnover of a U.S. Congress Representative is lower than that of European monarchs. These House delegates serve multi-decade terms and are focused on representing their donors more than their district voters.

The problem is not the character of the House delegate or their party, but an outdated district-based election system. Replacing this system, with proportional, state-wide voting for parties competing in each state, will restore the right incentives we need our House delegates to have, and pave the path for additional parties in the future. The resulting shift of political power from donors back to us, the voters, is the radical fix for our democracy.

How on earth could this change be feasible, you may ask. After all — Constitutional amendments are very unlikely as they require a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate or a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of the State legislatures.

The solution I am proposing does NOT require any constitutional amendment. The Constitution simply requires that the number of House delegates from each state is determined by its population. However, each and every state can decide how to elect its delegates. Any state can make this proposed change, without needing Washington’s approval or other states to follow suit.

The proposal can be summarized as abolishing the districting system altogether and instead, moving to a proportional House representation of each party that runs in a state-wide election: Each party will submit a ranked list of potential delegates to the US congress.

As an example, if a particular state has 50 House delegates, and 3 parties run in the state’s election, winning 80%, 10%, and 10% of the state-wide voters, the first party will get its top 40 delegates, and the other two will get their top 5 delegates. These delegates will represent their party in the US House of Representatives, on behalf of the whole state. They would no longer be tied to districts. As I shall explain ahead, this is the key to fixing Congress.

House Delegates elected under this new system, will be much more accountable to the voters, as shifts in voter sentiments across their state, even by marginal percentages, will mean losing House delegates to other parties. A delegate is more likely to prefer his constituents’ interest than that of a lobby group if they know their seat is on the line. They can no longer shield themselves with “safe districts” that have been gerrymandered by the two parties.

This change will pave the way for the emergence of new parties and end the two-party duopoly that is at the heart of the systemic deadlock we are in today.

To fully appreciate the issues with our current system and the merits of this proposal, let’s take a closer look, understand how we got here, and why a change is justified today: after all, the existing system with all its shortcomings did get us through turbulent times over the past 250 years.

The current system was invented at times when national media and telecommunication were non-existent. Media was centralized in the form of local newspapers and communication was through letters carried by post. A person in California had little in common with a person in Texas or New York, and had no way to communicate in real-time or even in any time (weeks or months) with anyone outside of their town, or at best their district. The Founders wanted to construct a system of checks and balances in this environment, and therefore it was very logical back then, to have the 435 Congress House members represent this distributed population through a system of districts. This made sure that the interests of people far from Washington were represented in the federal legislative process, by delegates they can get to know and physically communicate with. Districting made sense.

Let’s look at where we are today. We have the ability to communicate information and ideas from one to many in real-time and with no intermediaries. You can directly email, tweet, tag, or call your Congressional delegate, and even delegates that reside outside your district’s physical boundaries. For better or worse, our town square in the 21st century exists online. Therefore, getting rid of the district borders would have no bearing on our ability to judge a candidate.

To make matters worse, the two-party system we evolved into, has further neutralized the voters by promoting what is known as gerrymandering. District borders inside many states are modified to divide-and-conquer so that both parties will maximize control of their dominant districts. Because of the winner-takes-all district election, political-minority voters in any district have zero influence, while the local majority voters do not even bother to show up for election. The end result is one of the lowest turnouts for elections in the world.

Political influence has shifted from voters to the wheeling and dealing inside each party. The people running for Congress are much more obliged to the donors to their respective parties and to deals far from the public eye. It is no wonder then that the US has the highest campaign spending among democracies worldwide, and one of the lowest confidence that one’s vote actually counts. Voters from right and left are equally frustrated.

These problems have been known for decades, but things seem to just get worse and worse. Both parties finger-point to the other side as the evil party that got us into this mess. All the while, the legislative body is unable to enact any meaningful policy changes, even on issues that majorities in both parties agree on. The average American believes that Congress is in the back pocket of the lobbyists who pour money into both parties to protect their corporate interests. The rich are getting richer, the middle-class is evaporating with escalating debt and the rise in deaths-of-despair plagues the poor.

The frustration is great also inside both parties, where factions of ideological groups realize that if they leave and start a 3rd party, the districting system that is in place would guarantee that they will pass into oblivion and get no members elected to the House of Representatives. Whatever new ideas they have on the economy, environment, individual vs. group rights or security — nearly all are national matters and will have very little relevance at the district level.

This change will open up for the first time a viable path for 3rd, 4th, and 5th parties to get actual representation in Washington, since winning a portion of the state votes will be enough to get a portion of a state’s delegates pool. It will decisively break the filibustering duopoly we face today and will make political parties much more accountable to their voters. If delegates in Washington will irk their state voters, their party will lose a tangible proportion of their delegates.

This will ensure all voters will feel that their vote matters in affecting Congress elections. Each party will be forced to compete, and to set itself apart from other parties based on truly ideological lines. It will also allow parties to fade and collapse while new parties that offer the public better ideas and prove their actions in Congress will flourish. States that enact this change should expect higher voter turnout, which will increase the general confidence in the democratic process. Other states will observe and follow suit over time.

The dynamics of donor influence will not be completely eliminated, but political parties will become more accountable to their voters, for the simple reason that the anti-competitive duopoly of the two-party system will no longer be guaranteed by a districting system.

It will also reduce the occurrence of systemic deadlocks that we have seen lately between a president elected from one party and a Congress that is dominated by the other party, where both sides see a zero-sum game in agreeing on anything. In that situation, undermining the other side seems more important than voting the way their voters want them to on the matter at hand. We will likely see much more practical negotiations between House representatives of 3 or 4 parties who know that the voter judgment-day is real.

We will get a Congress that oversees the executive branch — from the President to the various government agencies — with competency, transparency, and accountability to us — the voters.

While the media is largely focused on presidential elections, our system actually places most of the policy-making powers with Congress. Therefore, fixing Congress is more important than whoever occupies the White House. Treat the illness, not the symptom.

Now you may say: “All this sounds great, but how on earth do you think that the Democrats or Republicans who occupy the state-legislatures, are going to let you change how we elect our Congress representatives? If anything they will surely unite to block such an existential threat to their duopoly.”

Well, all we need is a single state to enact this change, and over time other states will follow in a domino effect…social media and the grassroots public frustration from our political system could accelerate this process. This change will be gradual but will give viability to a 3rd and 4th party as early as when just a few big states adopt it.

People feel unable to escape from the jaws of their own party. We have seen these internal pressures of minority factions, inside both Democrat and Republican parties. These minorities are frustrated at the inability to change the agenda inside their own party. Bringing about this change could be, by itself, a unifying element to otherwise very separate forces, from both sides of the aisle….and convince ideological donors to back up campaigning for this idea.

The positive impact on the behavior of the Democrats and Republican parties will be felt, long before a majority of states adopt this change. In fact, even if no 3rd party emerges, a House representative from a state that enacted the proposed change will know that if they vote for bad policies in Washington (from the voter’s point of view) they could lose their seat to the other party. This is because the party will get fewer votes in the next state elections to Congress, which would push out the party’s bottom candidates. Conversely, if they vote for good policies, these delegates have a chance to move up the party ladder in the next primaries.

Ideological donors from both the right and the left should unite to support campaigning for this proposal — it will improve the health of the system regardless of your political affiliation. By implementing it, and leaving behind the outdated districting system, we will be making sure that our House delegates represent the voters, rather than the elite in Washington — which was our Founders’ intent all along.

This change will restore the basic checks and balances, originally designed into our political system. The three branches of our government have been struggling to function together when one of them has fallen sick. A healthy Congress, one that is truly accountable to its constituents, means a healthier United States of America.

Eitan Medina, Palo-Alto

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