Friday, March 28, 2008

Electoral reform

Last night on CNN, the senator from Florida, Bill Nelson, made an appearance. It is not surprising that a senator from Florida would bring up the issue of electoral reform, but it is surprising how rarely it is talked about in the media. The journalist was almost flabbergasted when the senator suggested that we should do away with the electoral collage.

I think this is one of the absolute most important issues in this country today, and an issue that is watched by large parts of the world. I believe the United States is in dire need of electoral reform for some very obvious reasons. The bottom line is simple: what voters need and want does not transfer into political decisions through the electoral process.

The United States has an extremely low voter turnout as compared to other western societies. It also does not exactly have a wide selection of choices for voters to consider in terms of political parties. It is difficult to vote in this country because you have to register, voting takes place on a weekday, postal ballots may not be offered, incomprehensible and sub standard technology is for some reason used, and so on and so on…. This is made even more complicated because of the absence of a proper nationwide system of identification.

These are some of the things I think need to happen:
- abolish the electoral college
- conduct all voting on Sundays
- automatically and permanently register every U.S. citizen over the age of 18 to vote
- elect the president by popular nationwide vote
- introduce a national ID card
- introduce a nationally uniform voting system with the same ballots and machines everywhere
- prohibit all private campaign donations

I believe that many of the worst problems that the United States faces at home today stem from the fact that a vicious circle has started in the electoral process. The will of the people has not transferred into political action through the electoral process because of the grave problems within it, hence citizens lose confidence in the system, hence the number of real and active participants in society drops, hence crime rates go up and the circle continues.

Now, why is it that the United States only has two viable political parties? It is because in a U.S. election, the party that wins the most votes in a given constituancy wins all the seats for that constituency. In most parliamentary systems, seats are awarded proportionally according to the percentage of votes. I blame the electoral system, and I blame the two-party system for many of the problems that exist in America today (I will hopefully be able to explain this further in future postings). In relation to this, I want to pose a question:

Do you believe the United States should switch to a parliamentary system where the voter would have a realistic choice between around 10 different parties? By that I mean a system where a party that receives 5% of the vote in a given district gets 5% of the parliamentary delegates in that districts. This would inevitably create more parties in the United States, and those additional parties would almost certainly bring more political diversity to the table.

I believe that giving voters a choice between around 10 different parties instead of 2 is a much more fair system. When you go and buy a car, would you prefer having 2 choices to having 10?


Anonymous said...

This is a fundamental issue that really deserves the most attention to prevent the many future crisis heading our way now. Parliamentary system is one sound way to reflect the diverse and complex nature of the demographics. It works well elsewhere too.

The world has changed; America has changed; technology has advanced and people are different. Our new political system must change to adapt to be of the people by the people and for the people again. Otherwise we shall perish as a great nation soon enough!

Last not the least, the current two party system has become a pure breeding ground for the flagrant corruption and shear incompetence, with few exception.

BCZ said...

The rest of your blog seems to drift a bit from this core theme, unfortunately. I do think that constitutional reform of this variety is on of the most important issues Americans should be thinking about.

Do I agree with your proposition? I am not sure. For your proposition to be strickly enforced, where seats are dispersed precisely equally to the percentage of votes attained, one would require a parliament with a fluctuating number of seats as large as one seat per voter to one as small as one seat for the one party getting 100% of the votes. Surely, there must be some sort of threshold established by some firm number of seats in the parliament. In a country with 100,000 voters and a parliament of 100 seats one would need at least 1000 votes to earn a seat. Moreover, what rule to we use when vote percentages don't precisely map on to seats? We can't give fractions of a seat can we? Different rules will have different consequences, some quite dramatic. Further, I worry about the consequences for the presidential election. If an absolute majority is required to win, how will we elect the president? The Run-off system (as in France) is quite perverse. Some sort of Transferable vote systems seems plausible but may be too complicated to be seen as legitimate by less informed voters. further, there is a real concern that a President, electable by a majority creates huge incentives for parties to join up together, rather than to diversify. Thus, the dream of 10 parties and a more representative legislature may be lost.

My big concern with such a radical reform is whether (a) we can actually get what we want with what you propose - better government through better representation and (b) whether or not we are tossing useful things out in order to get (c) things that we can't actually acheive.

Jacob said...


thank you for your comment. I agree with you that this topic should always be in the center of it all, since I believe that everything else we do amounts to band-aid approaches until we get the fundamentals right. I will try to tie it in to more posts in the future, and given that our president-elect is an actual constitutional scholar, I have no doubt that the topic will be in the news much more going forward.

The post on which you left a comment is a little sloppy. Every country is different, and as you point out, the exact allocation of votes can produce dramatic differences. To be clear, the exact system that I advocate is a proportional representation with party lists using the D'Hondt method (almost the same as the Thomas Jefferson method), with a threshold of 7-8% in order to get in to Parliament. I'm not a huge fan of a Presidential system, and would prefer that this country had a Prime Minister, but I would be OK with a President who had significantly less power than he/she has today.

The number of seats in Parliament would be fixed. When the number of votes don't exaclty add up, the supurfluous votes would be thrown into a national basket, where the last few seats would be alotted according to which party has the most votes in that basket.

In America today, I would argue that about 20% of the voters actually feel like their ideological homes can really be found in one of the two parties. The vast majority of Americans today are not represented by any party with an agenda that really caters to them. Electing individuals who take millions in bribes is not a good system, and I think most people can agree on that. What I want isonly this:

The voice of the people realized in political action.

That can only be done if more parties are allowed to participate in the political process, in my view.

Jacob said...

Also BCZ,

are you running a secret blog? I wouldn't mind reading an american blog on comparative politics as they are exceedingly rare...