more on proportional representation

Friday 14 May 2010

So the recent British election has been a great time for me (and you, the reader) to look at think about the way democracy works here in the U.S. and possibilities for change to make the system work better.  On Monday I wrote a post called “what does it mean to be a democracy?” where I talked about two changes I saw as being beneficial, namely preferential voting and proportional representational.

The recent House of Commons elections in Britain yielded no party with a majority of seats/representatives, and thus a coalition had to be formed to create a parliament and thus bring a new prime minister.  The Conservatives elected the MPs (members of parliament), with Labour not too far behind and the Liberal Democrats the “spoilers” with a respectable third place showing — and thus the party of import for the aforementioned coalition.  Thus, both top parties courted the LDs, and ultimately a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition was formed (and the bedfellows are just as odd as their names suggest).

Part of what the Liberal Democrats demanded in the final coalition agreement was a referendum to see if the public would desire a voting system similar to the kinds I was proposing (which would almost definitely benefit the numbers of Liberal Democrats in parliament).  Thus, some further good information about proportional representation has become available this week I wanted to share.

First, here is an great display of different voting systems and how they can skew the representation for particular parties.  The current U.S. system obvious benefits the main two parties, as it similarly does in the U.K., and thus why it takes the third party getting involved to make any change happen.  Voting Reform: what are the options?

Also, in the mid-80s, John Cleese of Monty Python fame did an interesting 10 minute spot on the benefits of proportional representation, and it can be found embedded here: Clegg’s Prize May Be New Voting System

A few notes: first, the sizes of population and parliament in the U.K. and U.S. must be noted.

Total population # in Lower Legislature House
U.K. 62 million 650 (House of Commons)
U.S. 309 million 435 (House of Representatives)

You’ll notice that the U.K. has a much smaller population, but over 200 more representatives.  Thus, each district in the U.K. has about 95,500 people per rep, while the U.S. has a staggering 711,000 people per district — over 7 times the number of the U.K.!  Thus, for equal proportion, the U.S. would need about 3240 members in the House of Representatives!  — Obviously our districts have gotten too big, and proportional representation would better represent the views of the electorate without growing the size of our legislature.

Comments to my last blog (by my brother!) mentioned the need for regional representation, and I think distributing House seats to states based on their size, and then having proportional representation in those states would be the best way for this to happen.  And as far as I can tell, each state is on their own in determining how their state representatives are allotted, so states could make these changes individually.  And I’m sure in larger states, you’d get people from different areas in those states running, and thus still have even more locally diverse representation.

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what does it mean to be a democracy?

Monday 10 May 2010

What does it mean to you to live in a democracy?  I’m guessing most (or all) who will end up reading this live in a democracy; the majority of you probably in the U.S.  But if you look around the world, not every democracy looks the same.  In fact, many democracies look pretty different than the U.S.

This post is a response to two things I experienced lately.  First, I went to see a new (still in film festivals) documentary about and called Gerrymandering.  While the movie was only OK in my mind, it made me think more deeply about the process of gerrymandering, or simply the process of drawing district, where a certain person represents a certain area, and where many people in that area may not feel repented at all.

Second, just before the results of the latest election in Britain were known, I read an article with this funny sentence: “But polls suggested there was a good chance no party would win an absolute majority needed to govern effectively.”  My first thought/response was “an absolute majority sure doesn’t help the Democrats in the U.S…”  But also the fact that there are more than two parties with multiple members in parliament is quite something for a U.S.  voter to consider.  ( The results did end up showing that no one party got an absolute majority, which will thus mean a “coalition” must be formed.)

I guess my main concern and thought is that we need some reform in the U.S. system.  I may be socialist, but I still believe representative democracy is the best way for a country to be run.  Many large elections often turn out less than half of registered voters (and certainly less than half of eligible voters — and horribly small numbers for primaries and “off” elections), so people obviously feel their voice isn’t heard.  Let me share some thoughts that would improve the system immensely.

First, I think we need to install preferential voting.  In this system, people rank their choices to allow for greater flexibility when voting.  This allows for people to avoid feeling like their vote is “wasted” when they prefer someone who is not necessarily in the top two, allowing for greater variety of candidates and more likelihood that people can vote for who they truly believe in and still know their vote will matter in the end.

Here is a simple example of how this works: Let’s say in an election, the candidates are Dana, Peg, and Adam.  Voters rank them by preference 1 -3.  When only the #1 choices are looked at, Dana has 35, Peg has 30, and Adam has 25.  No one has a majority, but we know Adam is liked least, so we take those voters who voted for him and see who their second choice is.  Of those who voted for Adam, 18 put Peg as a second choice and 7 put Dana, so now we see Peg has 48 and Dana has 42. Peg wins.  This scenario might exist if Peg is a well-liked candidate but from a minor party who voters might otherwise be scared to vote for because “she can’t win” as a third-party candidate.  However, this option allows her supporters to put her as a first choice and not be afraid their vote is “wasted” because they know their vote would go to their second choice if she can’t win.

This could be particularly useful in primaries, where you might have two people (say B. Obama and H. Clinton) considered “front runners” but multiple other candidates who people support.  Even if I prefer D. Kucinich, I might still vote for B. Obama out of fear that H. Clinton (who I very much don’t like) would win if I didn’t.  Or similarly, what if a B. Obama and J. McCain face off, but I really like this third guy R. Paul, who many don’t give a chance.  Do I “waste” my vote and vote for the guy I truly believe in or vote for the two “top dogs” who people say actually have a chance of winning?  With preferential voting, you don’t have to choose!  This allows more people to get in the action without them being termed “spoilers” for taking away votes that might to to others, because if their candidate does not get enough support, they can then support another candidate (those familiar with caucusing will understand much better than others how this might work).

The second big change I think needs to happen is proportional representation.  This system attempts to have the representatives in government more closely mirror the proportions found in the population.  Let’s say the great state of Ohio has these proportions of ideologies across the whole state:
5% Far Left
15% Left
30% Middle/Left
25% Middle/Right
15% Right
10% Far Right

However, because how districts are arranged, winner take all elections, and the general two-party system, the make-up of representatives to congress looks like this:
0% Far Left
10% Left
40% Middle/Left
10% Middle/Right
35% Right
5% Far Right

In this (fictitious) example, you notice that the “Left” representation is skewed to the middle, and the “Right” representation is skewed to the Right.  Those in the Far Left, who make up 1 in 10 voters, feel no one is speaking for them, and many in the Middle/Right feel under-represented and unheard.

Instead of looking at small units and only having one representative, if you look at a larger area and have the representation be proportional to the numbers found in the region as a whole, more (or all) people feel like they have a voice and that their vote and voice matter to the decision making process.

Let’s use the numbers above and give Ohio 20 reps in the House after the next census — as it stands, if you live in Fulton county Ohio, you have one certain representative who may or may not be sympathetic to your views, and you may think “they don’t represent ME!”  However, if the 20 reps of Ohio instead represented the spectrum of ideologies, everyone should know that there is someone (or many people, if your ideology is a common one) who represents my feelings on the decisions that have to be made.  No one (or far, far fewer) should feel like their vote made no different.

As gerrymandering and district drawing go, many districts are “foregone conclusions,” where people expect the Democrat or Republican to win because of the sheer numbers of “those voters” in that area, and thus feel un-compelled to vote (if the election is even contested in the first place).  Ohio’s 5th Congressional District (located in rural NW Ohio) has sent a Republican to Washington since 1939 (not to mention the fact that it was only 3 different people from 1939 to 2007).  If I’m a non-Republican living there, why should I vote?  Who represents me in Congress?  Proportional representation gives a voice and representation to those who feel voiceless under the current system.

(The electoral college is also flawed, but we won’t get into that much here.  Basically, large elections should be based on the popular vote numbers using preferential voting.)

Preferential voting and proportional representation will help rid the U.S. of the horrible monopoly operating as the  two-party system.  These systems would allow more and varied voices to be heard, not just on TV and the Internet, but in the legislative process as well.  With more parties in the mix, it will force an end to the “us vs. them” mentality of Democrats vs. Republicans, Conservatives vs. Liberals, and on and on.  Coalitions will emerge to get things done, and groups will cease to be the monolithical, unmovable blocks who refuse to talk about compromise because no one group alone has enough power to sway things without the help of others.

Thoughts?  Comments?  Agree/Disagree?  Please comment and pass on to others.


What’s wrong with politics (AKA: Why Scott Brown beat Martha Coakley in Massachusetts)

Wednesday 20 January 2010

When I woke up this morning, I remembered there had been an (important?) election yesterday and asked someone who won.  I was not surprised in the least.

I’m not a political correspondent.  I don’t live in Massachusetts.  But you don’t need to be either of those to know why Brown (a Republican) beat Coakley (a Democrat) to take the Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy in (what the NY Times calls) “the overwhelmingly Democratic state of Massachusetts.”  You just need to follow the political system a little bit these days.

Here are my three reasons why Brown beat Coakley in Massachusetts:

1. There is no such thing anymore as “party loyalty.”
While there may have been such a thing in the past, we’re past that.  Sure, people my have liberal or conservative views, but for the most part, people don’t care what party label the person carries on the ballot.

The first example came in the 2008 election.  Barack Obama won many “formerly Republican” states.  I say no, these weren’t “Republican states,” but instead states that had previous voted in the majority for the Republican presidential candidate.

Secondly, the current “tea party” people.  Many would say they’re Republicans who are mad at their party.  I say no, these are conservatives who no longer see enough Republicans championing the issues and values that are important to them.  In the special election in New York’s 23rd congressional district in November 2009, you actually had the officially endorsed Republican candidate drop out after massive pressure by a conservative, “tea party,” challenger backed by people like Sara Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Fox News’ Glenn Beck.

People can no longer be counted on to vote a “straight party ticket,” as they call it, for people will choose to vote as they see fit (see reason #3 below).

Reason #1 is the basis for the next two reason:

2. Marth Coakley got lazy and ran a horrible race (if you can say she ran a race at all)
Again, I’m not a political correspondent, but if you followed the news stories before the election, you know this to be true, and it was definitely a factor in her loss.  Obviously, she was counting on the “party support,” but as I said in reason #1, that doesn’t exist any more.

3. Voters are sick of all the government bureaucracy and things not getting done, and they’re not afraid to voice their opinion about it at the ballot box
It seems to me that recently, voting has become not a way to select what you want but a referendum on what you don’t want.  Since I can recall, I’ve been told that voting is the way to “make your voice heard,” and I’m sure millions of others have been told the same thing.  While this is definitely true, voters are now using this in a new way, a way that really fuels the fire they’re trying to put out!

Underlying voter habits the past 5 or so years has been an overwhelming feeling that government is broken, and it needs fixed.  Thus, the remedy, it’s been decided, is to get rid of all the people in Washington (and maybe the state capital, too) and get new people in there who will surely do a better job.  Instead of focusing on how to work with the government already in place (when was the last time YOU called your representative?), the general consensus has been to just get rid of what’s there and start over.  That’s why there was so much turn over in the recent fall 2008 and 2009 elections.

The problem comes in the disconnect between the reasons voters are making their choices and the way politicians, our elected officials, interpret them, as I don’t think politicians are getting the message.  Let me simplify this, again with a few points.

a. Voters want government to do something
b. When government is stagnant and not making things happen, voters get frustrated
c. When frustrated, voters get upset and want to get the politicians who are the problem out and someone (usually anyone) else in
d. When a politician is voted in, they think the voter picked them because of their ideas and beliefs — who they are — when, in fact, it may have more to do with who they aren’t
e. When an elected official doesn’t realize the actual reason they were elected, they make no effort to change the structure of government, and not much changes
f. If nothing changes, voters continue to be upset and the cycle continues.

Now, here are a few suggestions that might help remedy all these problems:

1. Elected officials need to work together…
… their jobs depend on it!  Until politicians get the picture that no one is safe and voters aren’t afraid to continue turning over the name cards on office doors in Washington and state capitals, no one is safe.  The “Obama brand of politics,” where you try to get support from conservatives and liberals alike, doesn’t work when he’s the only one playing — and unfortunately for Obama, he’ll suffer, too, if no one else joins in.

2. Voters need to work with and pressure their current elected officials, not just wait until the next election to change them
Perhaps, when all is said and done, the change really needs to happen here, or else there really won’t be any change at all.  Politicians aren’t dumb people (no matter what you believe), and part of their job is doing what it takes to get reelected, and in most cases, that means making the constituents happy!  The “whatever it takes” mentality is obvious in politicians switching parties, as well as recent retirements by those who feel they couldn’t win anyway.

Elected officials do listen to their constituents — if only because they want to get elected again!  They may not believe everything they have to do, but that’s not the point, the point is that they act on behalf of their constituents.

Unless we, as voters, communicate with them, they can’t do that — and just voting them out for disapproval isn’t how it’s going to happen.

3. Voters need to pay attention to their representatives, not the outcome as a whole
It takes some energy, but just because the end results didn’t come out how you, the voter, wanted them to, doesn’t mean your rep is personally doing a bad job and needs to be axed.  Voters need to recognize this when they go to the ballot box instead of holding a “get rid of them all” mentality when things don’t go as they hoped.

OK, so there’s a lot of room for discussion here.  Please have some!