February 23rd, 2006


Fixing the System

The editor of US News is complaining about the nastiness of US politics:
Party primaries, with low turnout, have come to be dominated by ideologues supported by special-interest groups that fund negative advertising. Winning elections has turned more on getting out the base vote--Karl Rove's winning strategy in 2004. Turnout is stimulated by wedge issues, which inflame the activists and often leave moderate voters unhappy at their choices. American opinion is less polarized than the parties' positions on highly charged social issues like abortion, gay marriage, and school prayer.
One of my earlier posts discussed how people with views off the liberal-conservative axis have their voices muffled by our system. Only the two major parties can get the 50%+1 needed to win an election. That's a big part of the problem Zuckerman discusses. With no place else to go the moderates and other believers have to pick between Tweedledum and Tweedledumber or stop voting. Either way, the big two come out ahead. They can compete to be the most extreme in order to motivate their most devoted voters, while the offended moderates have no way to punish them.

The only way to get more opinions heard is to change the system. The classic way to include everyone is a proportional representation system, where seats in the legislature are allocated to each party according to how many votes they got. Instead of the 49%ers being represented by the other side's candidate for their district everyone can point to a officer-holder they voted for.

PR governments are common in Europe. They avoid the "red vs. blue" hostility in America but have their own problems. Typically no party has a majority so the government depends on a coalition to pass laws. Bargaining drives decision-making, so policies opposed by the majority of voters get enacted because determined minorities demand them for their support.

A PR system has an especially hard time finding the will of the voters on a single issue, even one as crucial as declaring war. In communications jargon, trying to find out people's opinions on everything is such a noisy process that you can't identify the strongest signal. Our 50%+1 system is best at that--we can get everyone to take a stand on the main issue of the day.

So is there a way to get definite decisions and still have a place in the system for all viewpoints? Australia has a hybrid between PR and 50%+1. The lower house is elected by the majority in single-member districts while the upper house is PR (with variations among the national and state governments). The Senate brings in more viewpoints than the two-party controlled lower house (In NSW they get many, many more). This gives people who don't fit into the two-party system a platform but limited power. Australia uses the parliamentary system so prime ministers are elected from the lower house. The Senate can reject laws but doesn't propose them. If a deadlock occurs between the houses an election is called.

In a presidential-style system, such as our federal and state governments, the two houses have nearly equal powers. The federal Senate and House are elected differently, but most state legislatures elect theirs in the same way, just with the senators having twice as many constituents as the representatives. Electing one house with proportional representation would not require any change to the powers of the body. Having the other house and executive elected with 50%+1 would ensure the government could still be directed by the voters on a single issue.

California is a good place to see what this system would look like in practice. The 2002 and 2003 gubernatorial elections took two different looks at the same electorate. In 2002 the voters had two major party candidates, selected by the primary voters. The next year the recall process let a moderate by-pass the primaries and voters jumped at the chance to vote for him. Every party from the Democrats down to the small minor parties lost many of their voters to Schwartzenegger.

From these results we can approximate what a PR state senate would look like. The voters who stuck with the major parties in 2003 give us the hard-core percentage. 2002 showed how many moderates also normally vote with each party, as well as the strength of the minor parties. The 40 senate seats would be allocated like this:

(reference data and math here)

This puts the moderates in control. Either party can pass a bill if the other one's moderates sign on. The extremes of each major party will have to cool their rhetoric or lose more voters to the moderate factions. More voters will turn out when they have someone to vote for instead of against. Moderate candidates can gain statewide support before running for governor. New issues can be raised in the Senate instead of the clumsy initiative process. And the Pat Robertson/Al Sharpton-type blowhards can be exposed as having no real support in the communities they claim to represent.

California's also the easiest place to put this into practice. A voter referendum can alter the state constitution without the political establishment having the power to stop it (In Texas, implementing this would require 2/3s of the state senate voting to abolish their jobs). The existing minor parties have the organization to make it happen. Something for my readers in California to think about.
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