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Change voting laws before changing the Constitution

Posted: November 3, 2013 - 12:08am

In shutting down the government, Congress reached a new level of dysfunction. While many pundits castigated individuals and parties, others more insightfully focused on institutional rules, such as the role of gerrymandering, closed primaries and campaign spending.

Others went further. Comparative politics scholar Juan Linz famously demonstrated that presidential democracies are prone to dysfunction, which the United States has largely avoided by having big tent parties that are “diffuse” and allow for internal dissent. Most healthy democracies instead combine parliamentary government with legislatures elected via party list forms of proportional representation. Under such rules, Germany, possessor of Europe’s strongest economy, just elected a broadly representative legislature and is forming a functional coalition government.

With the shutdown underscoring the incompatibility of rigid parties with our system of strong checks and balances, the Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews, Salon’s Alex Pareene, New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, and Slate’s Matthew Yglesias all blamed presidentialism or suggested switching to parliamentary government. But not only does this drastic step require unrealistic constitutional change, it also clashes with what makes our politics truly exceptional — diffuse parties where individual legislators don’t just toe a party line. Most Americans dislike Congress so much today because they yearn for more examples of the idealism of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Even though we vote for individuals for Congress, we now have de facto party-based elections. Ticket-splitting has all but disappeared, reflecting a widening cultural and ideological gap between the parties. The result is a sharp decline in the number of competitive congressional districts and fewer internal differences within parties. The parties’ traditional big tents have collapsed, leaving few remaining “bridgebuilders” able to forge compromises.

If we accept such politics as inevitable, parliamentary government with party lists makes sense. But rather than abandon James Madison, we call for the restoration of the quintessentially American ideal of a candidate-centric federal republic. With a simple statute, Congress can eliminate the root cause of our party-dominated politics: winner-take-all voting rules that silence the minority.

The essential reform is electing House members with ranked choice voting in multi-member districts. As simple as voting 1-2-3 and proven in local elections, ranked choice voting rewards voters who cast sincere ballots and candidates who reach out to more voters. When used in multi-member districts, it guarantees more diverse representation.

As shown in our 50-state plan at FairVoting.us, the House would have fewer and larger districts drawn by independent commissions. Each voter would have one potent vote in elections for between three and five representatives, according to the district’s population. Like-minded voters could elect someone with about a quarter of the vote, meaning that most voters would first help nominate someone in a primary and then help elect a candidate in the general election.

Under our plan, every single multi-member district would likely elect representatives of both major parties. When parties are more geographically and ideologically diverse and when nearly all House Members share constituents with representatives of the opposing party, Congress will have new incentives and opportunities for cooperation.

That these changes would reduce gridlock and foster better dialogue is not just conjecture. Illinois used a similar system for a century to elect its House of Representatives. A 2001 commission led by former Congressman Abner Mikva (D) and governor Jim Edger (R) recommended its return, lauding the benefits of shared representation and more independent legislators. Former Illinois comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch observed that “The House had lots more free-wheeling, innovative people, and (the Senate) was just like a prison practically. Multi-member districts were responsible for that difference.”

Congressional leaders often praise the Constitution. But the best way to honor the Constitution is through statutory reforms that would allow the Founders’ vision to work in modern politics. Let’s take the bold step of ending gerrymandering through the adoption of ranked choice voting by the start of the new decade.

• Rob Richie is executive director and Devin McCarthy is a policy analyst at FairVote.org, a nonpartisan organization based in Takoma Park, Md. For more information: email info@fairvote.org.

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