Skinning the Democratic Cat

February 17, 2019
Edward McMahon

We Americans find our ourselves today in a crisis of democracy.  Our institutions don’t seem to work.  They produce polarizing results.  Gridlock and political stasis are prevalent.  Visions of the future are bleak, featuring continued and increased stressing of our democratic institutions and traditions until they risk reaching the breaking point.

None of us wants to find out what would happen in such an eventuality; the scenarios are horrific including the loss of fundamental freedoms, imposition of authoritarian rule, and the failure of democracy.  If all of this seems far-fetched, who amongst us would have thought just a few short years ago that we would be at the point at which we are now?

Can anything be done about this?  Is the collapse of our democracy a given?  Thankfully, the answers are yes, and no.  But the clock is ticking.   It is high time we shake off our fatalistic and complacent sense that we are being swept inexorably towards the waterfall of authoritarian rule.

As part of reinvigorating our democracy, we need to move beyond the mythical aspect of American exceptionalism, which holds that we in this country govern ourselves better than anyone else.  There is most definitely more than one way to “skin the cat”, i.e. to shape effective and legitimate democratic institutions.  Ours are not necessarily better than those of many other democracies – and in some respects they fare poorly by comparison.  Even if it requires some pride-swallowing, we need to learn from others’ experiences, which can help us overcome our current problems.   The following represent a few of the areas in which we have democratic deficits, and most democratic countries do things differently.

The Electoral College.  The electoral college does continue to serve its purpose of balancing our federal system, and ensuring that smaller states are not left by the wayside.  But in its current form it also serves to distort and polarize the popular will.  The election of a president who lost the popular vote has become more common.  And it is ironic that an institution established to serve as a check on bad choices that might be made by pure one-person one-vote democracy has produced the current result.

There is a good reason why few other democratic countries employ electoral colleges in the election of their president.  The closest comparison to our system might be that of South Africa where the parliament elects the president, so it is in effect an electoral college.  As with most electoral colleges, however, it has the effect of further distancing the president from the popular vote. Rather, we should look to countries such as France, in which the president is elected in a two-round vote which ensures that the winning candidate has a majority of the popular vote.  Or we could learn from other countries which utilize proportional representation for national elections, and opt for electoral votes to be allocated proportionately at the state level.  The fundamental principle underlying these types of institutional choices is that the president’s election should most effectively represent the popular will.

Gerrymandering.  American democracy has been undermined by increased sophistication, and partisanship, in the drawing up of congressional (and state legislative) district boundaries by state legislatures.  Various systems exist in other democracies for choosing legislative boundaries which minimize partisanship in the process.  These include the creation of some form of multi or non-partisan commission, or the drawing of boundaries by an independent judicial body. One study of 60 countries that draw districts found that just under 25% of the countries utilize systems that gave the legislature a predominant role in drawing districts. By contrast, over two-thirds of the countries utilized some type of commission, be it judicial, independent, and/or multi-partisan.  Thankfully several states in the U.S. opted for these types of reforms in the 2018 election but these reforms are subject to “clawback” by anti-reform forces, and much more remains to be done to safeguard and expand these reforms.

Congressional reform.  Beyond gerrymandering, a variety of factors have combined to embed partisanship and political polarization in our Congress.  Our first-past the post system is in fact used in only a minority of democratic legislative elections around the world.  In contrast, a majority utilize either some version of proportional representation, or a two-round election system, in which the top candidates face off against each other.

No one expects the U.S. to adopt full-blown proportional representation for congressional elections.  However, more proportional legislative results which more accurately reflect the popular are realistically possible.  This could be done, for example, through the use of Ranked Choice Voting as is now utilized for congressional elections in Maine.  In this system voters may cast multiple votes according to their electoral preferences.  This, in turn, provides an incentive to candidates to moderate their campaign positions to garner second choice votes which could accrue to them if no candidate receives a majority.

Multi-member congressional districts.  Opening up congressional districts to include more than one representative would make results more proportional.  They could also decrease partisanship, as various political actors reflecting a range of views including moderate and centrist ones would be able to gain representation.  According to the non-partisan election reform group Fairvote, 90 of 195 countries around the world have only multi-member districts, only 54 consist of only single-member districts, and 38 use a mix of the two.  Another possible reform in this regard could be to concomitantly modestly increase the size of the House of Representatives.  It now ranks as having one of the highest percentages of population to representation in democratic legislatures in the world, which degrades the representative-citizen connection.

Campaign finance reform.  In the US limits exist on individual campaign contributions but not on campaign spending.  Finland is the only other country in this category.  By contrast, according to the NGO International Idea, two-thirds of the industrialized democracies utilize some form of public financing of elections.  They thus avoid the corrosive effects of large amounts of private money being funneled into elections.  There is considerable room for meaningful change in the U.S. based on other countries’ pubic campaign finance formulas.

Of course there are stated reasons as to why various aspects of the US electoral processes are the way that they are.  But the question is whether they are standing up to the test of time.   If not, we need to seriously consider and adopt alternatives that can help strengthen the overall health of our democracy.  As President Jimmy Carter has stressed, “The experience of democracy is like the experience of life itself-always changing, infinite in its variety, sometimes turbulent and all the more valuable for having been tested by adversity.”

Edward R. McMahon is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Vermont, and an international consultant, whose work focuses on the functioning of democratic institutions globally.