We need a revolution.
Why? Because our election system is producing terrible results.
Aside from the bigoted, ignorant, abusive man that was recently elected as President despite losing the popular vote, most politicians seem to focus more on getting re-elected than on governing. President Obama recently admitted that the obstructionist strategy employed by the Republicans during his 8 years in office was actually effective. In the 2016 elections, 97% of incumbent US House of Representatives won re-election. Incumbent US Senators had an only slightly lower rate of re-relection — 90%. Voter turnout in the 2016 election was estimated at staggeringly low 56%.
These rates are in line with historical rates, reflecting voter apathy and a shocking lack of interest in what might very well be one of the most important decisions any citizen can make in a democracy.
But what kind of a revolution?
Surely, one where people get killed and power gets transferred violently is not inline with Secular Humanists values.
Abraham Lincoln famously said about the U.S form of Government that a “…Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth”. The concept of a Government elected by the people, for the people, is one of the key ideas in the constitution. At the time of its writing, this idea was one of the most innovative aspects of the American democratic experiment.
It is hard to reconcile this ideal of government with voter apathy. And it is hard to keep the Government “for the people” when the best predictor of whether a member of Congress will get elected is whether they are incumbents, rather than their policy agenda, or their voting record.
Our current system rewards inaction and promotes mudslinging. In essence, blaming everything on the other side and not doing anything (and avoiding the risk of alienating some group of voters), are two safe strategies to keep your seat, once in Congress.
What if we felt our representatives actually reflected our world views?
What if there was real incentive for elected officials to work together with other elected officials to get things done?
What if the smartest people in a variety of fields considered running for office to be a good career choice, rather than leaving it to lawyers, business people and generals?
An interesting proposal called “interactive representation” is outlined in a great (if somewhat dense) book entitled “Reinventing Congress for the 21st Century”. It proposes electing Representatives to the House of Representatives in statewide elections rather than districts, using ranked choice voting as a way to better align voters and their Representatives while at the same time keeping those Representatives more accountable.
But why is this the revolution we need?
Consider how ranked choice voting will work in a no-districts state wide election in a state with multiple House of Representatives seats such as California, Texas, New York or Florida. Let’s assume a situation where there are more candidates than House seats open in that election.
(Adapted from this faq) On election day, voters rank their candidates based on how well they like their policy ideas, rather than voting for just one candidate. On Election Night, all the ballots are counted for voters’ first choices. The candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated and voters who liked that candidate the best have their ballots instantly counted for their second choice. This process repeats and last-place candidates lose until there are exactly as many candidates remaining as there are open House seats for the state.
Every voter is now represented by the most appropriate House of Representatives member. Every Representative is responsible for a group of voters that back their agenda priorities. This Representative will have to try and advance that agenda, otherwise his voters will not re-elect them. It is no longer in their best interest to do nothing or blame the other side. Rather, they are incentivized to use productive political tactics like compromising, building consensus and using mediation to overcome differences.
The voters, for their part, know exactly who is representing them. They are much more likely to have studied their Representative’s policy agenda, and to put pressure on them to keep moving it forward. Rather than feeling like they voted for “a lesser of two evils” as is often the case in the district based system, voters might actually identify with the goals of their Representative and be less tolerant of inaction.
The main benefit from removing districts is increased choice for voters. Of course, it would also do away with the abominable practice of Gerrymandering, but Gerrymandering can be solved in other ways. In a state with multiple House seats, multiple candidates are expected to compete, providing a wide field of opinions and agendas from which voters can choose. This would greatly improve voters’ feelings of having a candidate they agree with, a candidate that understand their problems and priorities.
Many like to talk about the importance of a representative knowing their constituents as a positive aspect of keeping districts around. Is this benefit so great, though, that it is worth sacrificing the increased choice and accountability that come with Interactive Representation? Most Americans live in diverse communities that span multiple ethnicities, classes and backgrounds. Can a single representative really connect with all of the people that happen to live in proximity to one another? Would it not be better for people to be represented by a like-minded representative?
The reason to focus on the House of Representatives rather than the Senate or the Presidential election is that, it does not require any constitutional change. The U.S constitution leaves it up to the the citizens of states to choose their Representatives. The constitution does not mandate the use of districts, and it is entirely possible for any state to decide to start using Interactive Representation at any moment.
In the future, the Presidential election might also change to use Interactive Representation voting, as might the Senate.
Many people like to talk about how “voters are stupid”. While this certainly is inaccurate scientifically — voters represent a cross section of society which has smart and stupid and everything in between — the sentiment is likely (at least to some extent) derived from the facts outlined about, indicating voter apathy and the incumbent re-election effect. In addition, the system currently encourages smearing, obstructionism and general lack of action by politicians. Is it a surprise that most people look at politics as a dirty, corrupt activity, and show little interest in participating in it? With increased accountability and results, voters might start to care more about their candidates, and exhibit more sophisticated evaluation of them.
Revolutions always seem impossible, implausible and unrealistic before they happen. A successful revolution, however, can transform its subject completely.
Isn’t it time?