Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Hate Congress? Blame the System!

I read an opinion piece on politico.com the other day that inspired the following response. The original piece can be read at http://www.politico.com/story/2013/08/hate-congress-blame-yourself-95118.html

The article “Hate Congress? Blame yourself”, by Linda Killian, published 8/2/13 on politico.com, makes some valid points but fails to find a remedy. The author's solution, that more people need to vote in major party primaries, is inconsistent with the evidence she presents. In reality, there are two related solutions to the current fiasco of a government not accountable to the majority of its citizens: First, eliminating the gerrymandered, single seat elections to Congress (and statehouses, for that matter). Second, make room for a multiparty democracy, like nearly every other democratic nation has.

After citing numerous polls that prove what everyone already knows- namely, that our Congressional Representatives do not really represent the majority of their constituents- the author correctly points out that gerrymandered districts encourage politicians to pander to the extremes in their party base, in order to win party primaries. Again the author correctly points out that in most cases by the time the general election rolls around the victor is a foregone conclusion. It is an unfortunate, but certain, fact of political life. And it leads to the vehement gridlock we see every day on Capitol Hill.

Independent redistricting commissions whose criteria are based on mathematical principles and demographic data, rather than protecting (or punishing!) incumbents or promoting the political power of one party or the other is a step in the right direction. But getting the state legislatures to create such commissions has proven nearly impossible. That is why Californians had to create one using a ballot initiative- an option not available in all states.

And, while open primaries look good on paper, in fact they are not a viable solution. First and foremost, political parties have an interest in keeping outsiders from interfering with their selection process. For example, Republican Party members voting in the primary have a much different goal than nonmembers. Members want the most Republican candidate to represent them, nonmembers want something else, perhaps the most moderate candidate, as suggested in the article.

Perhaps more importantly, open primaries fail on another level. Again according to Ms Killian's article, 46% of voters choose not to align themselves with a political party. This is probably because they don't align themselves with either parties' values, as expressed or in practice. The solution is not to ask independent voters to come vote in a party primary when they don't want to be a part of that party. The solution is to give voters more options, that is, more parties.

Most states have extremely restrictive ballot access laws for minor parties or individuals who choose to run unaffiliated with a party. For example, my state, New Mexico, required 2186 petition signatures to run in the Democratic primary for US Senator in 2012, but 18,084 signatures to run as a non-affiliated candidate. Further, to be considered a major party, and therefore have a party primary, a party's candidate for governor or president must have received at least 5% of the vote in the preceding election. Unfortunately, independents and swing voters are told they are wasting their vote on a candidate who can't win, or, worse, are spoiling the election by voting for the candidate of their choosing, so the 5% threshold is harder to attain than it appears.

In her article, Ms Killian quotes former PA Governor Rendell as saying to voters, “Get off your duff and do something.” I agree. But while Governor Rendell would have you participate in Democrat or Republican primaries, I urge you not to. Instead, insist that your state laws honor your decision not to be a member of one of the major parties. Fight for laws that enable minor party and independent candidates equal opportunity at the ballot box. Join or start a political party whose values you admire. Work to get the media to cover non-mainstream candidates and issues. Better yet- become the media and cover them yourself.

Finally, one last idea for a reform whose time has come: proportional representation. In Germany or Mexico, when the Green Party gets 20% of the popular vote, they get 20% of the seats in Congress. In the US, when Green Party candidates get 20% of the vote, they get called spoilers. Why shouldn't all voices, including minority voices, be represented in Congress?

Instead of a system that honors the opinions of all citizens by giving equal representation, we have a system that rewards extremists who pander to strict ideologies. Often, in the case of multicandidate elections, we even see people going to Washington with fewer than 50% of the votes cast, and that doesn't even count the voters who don't show up because they know in advance who will win. This isn't Democracy. It is a farce.

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