Frazier, a student at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, runs The Oregon Way, a nonpartisan blog.
Our social contract is broken. Under the contract's terms, "consent at the ballot box confers both democratic credentials and democratic legitimacy," as described by Hélène Landemore in her book "Open Democracy." The contract breaches are numerous and obvious.
The first breach: democratic credentials. Have you ever stopped to wonder how a member of Congress can claim to represent all 747,000 (more of less) of their constituents? Even in the best-case scenario, in a district that hasn't been gerrymandered and in a place with high voter turnout, the member will have only received direct electoral support from a small fraction of the whole eligible electorate. For Landemore (and the rest of us) that begs the question: "How can the authorization of some, even a large majority, confer the authorization of all?"
The second breach: democratic legitimacy. Under our current electoral framework and contract, there's an assumption that simply by virtue of being a member of the public you've consented to the winner of an election representing your views, speaking on your behalf, wielding your sovereign power. Increasingly, though, that concept of hypothetical consent rings hollow; in the words of Landemore, "hypothetical consent is, simply put, no consent at all."
For democratic legitimacy to exist the representative, per Hanna Pitkin, "must (1) be authorized to act; (2) act in a way that promotes the interests of the represented; and (3) be accountable to the represented." Our current elections clearly don't confer this sort of legitimacy. First, only a small segment participates in "authorizing" the representative to act by participating in elections. Second, our elected officials are frequently forced, predominately by special interests, to act counter to the interests of those they claim to represent. Third, our elections, due to lack of participation and excessive influence of partisan and monied entities, are a poor means of holding officials accountable.
How, then, can and should we rewrite the contract? The answer isn't direct democracy, which is "always at risk of being hijacked by individuals with time, money, and intense preferences," per Landemore. Nor is the answer as simple as taking money out of politics, or some variant of a plea for marginal changes to our current system. At a minimum, we need to adopt reforms capable of establishing democratic credentials and democratic legitimacy.
A transition to proportional representation is the easiest (though admittedly difficult) step to take to realize democratic credentials and legitimacy. If the social contract really has been breached, then this reform has the chance to restore the bonds between we the people and our elected representatives. As outlined by Lee Drutman, proportional representation could work by electing the top three voter-getters in each congressional district.
On democratic credentials, the election of more representatives would provide the election winners with a much sturdier democratic credential to act on the behalf of their (effectively fewer) constituents. On democratic legitimacy, proposal would (1) permit House members more authority to act by virtue of fewer voters feeling as though they had not provided their consent for that representative to act; (2) make it easier for representatives to act in the interest of the specific voters that elected them; (3) increase the ability of voters to hold their officials accountable through more competitive elections and a greater capacity to monitor the fidelity of the official to their interests.
Proportional representation is not a wild step; in fact, a move to proportional representation would bring the United States into alignment with most democracies. Some, such as Drutman, even argue that proportional representation would allow Congress to get back to its Golden Era (roughly 1950-70), in which both the Democrats and Republicans contained conservative and liberal factions — thus effectively creating a four-party system in which cross-partisan compromises were possible.
The people, as sovereigns, should demand more from their social contract. The current terms have woefully fallen short of the aspirations of the people. Decades of underperformance justify the meaningful consideration of a new approach. Proportional representation is the most tenable approach that sufficiently warrants the people entrusting their power to their representatives.
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While congressional Republicans remain overwhelmingly, if not unanimously, opposed to the For the People Act, a new survey found strong bipartisan backing for the wide-ranging bill that would set new standards for elections.
The survey — conducted by Data for Progress, a progressive think tank and polling firm, for Vox — found that 69 percent of Americans strongly or somewhat support the bill when told it would "make it easier to vote, limit the influence of money in politics, and require congressional districts to be drawn by a non-partisan commission so that no one party has an advantage." That breaks down as 85 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of independents and 52 percent of Republicans. (Note that voter ID and so-called ballot harvesting, among the most partisan elements of election administration, were not mentioned.)
No Republican voted in favor of the bill, also known as HR 1, when Democrats pushed it through the House of Representatives, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans have vowed to block its passage in the Senate. Republicans say the legislation would damage election security while Democrats claim it would make elections more fair.
Pollsters broke the bill down into a handful of its major components to gauge support for individual provisions, some of which were heavily backed by all three political groupings. For example, limiting the influence of money in politics was supported by 86 percent of Democrats, 87 percent of independents and 80 percent of Republicans. Modernizing election infrastructure to increase security had similar numbers (90/83/77), as did preventing foreign interference in elections (85/82/82).
Support for a 15-day early voting period and nonpartisan redistricting commissions both received more than 50 percent support across all three categories as well.
A handful of other proposals did not crack 50 percent among Republicans.
- Automatic voter registration: 81 percent Democrats, 59 percent independents, 44 percent Republicans.
- Same-day voter registration for eligible voters: 84/49/49.
- A vote-by-mail option for all voters: 84/64/38.
- Restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences: 72/54/39.
- Limiting voter roll purges: 73/51/48.
Again, voter ID and collecting ballots on behalf of voters were not among the topics queried.
The pollsters also asked respondents about replacing the current system of drawing congressional districts with a proportional representation system in which each state's U.S. House delegation would be based on the statewide vote share. Just over half of all respondents said they would support such a system, including 63 percent of Democrats, 50 percent of independents and 41 percent of Republicans.
But when more context was added to the question, opinions shifted.
In one version, respondents were told: "Some lawmakers in Congress are considering changing Senate procedure to allow for this proposal to pass with 51 votes, rather than 60 votes, meaning Democrats could pass the bill without support from Republicans." Asked how they felt about changing Senate procedures to pass the bill, overall support dropped 4 points to 47 percent. Democratic support rose, while backing among Republicans and independents dropped significantly.
In another question about the proportional representation plan, questioners said, "Supporters of this say we should create these standards so that everyone's vote can count equally and no one party has an advantage over the other in drawing district lines, making our elections fairer. Opponents of this say that it is a power grab by politicians who want to pick their voters rather than the other way around."
When faced with this language, 70 percent of Democrats voiced support, as did 50 percent of independents. But only a third of Republicans backed the proposal.
The survey was conducted April 16-19 of 1,138 likely voters with a margin of error of 3 percentage points. See the full results here.
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It's double Senate election day in Georgia. And all eyes are on the outcome of a monstrously high-stakes, titanic struggle for the heart and soul of the nation — and the unfathomable resources, both emotional and financial, spent to influence the results.
Contrary to the deep divisions and diversity of interests burbling at the surface, the winning side (if one party takes both seats) will declare that "the people of Georgia" believe what their candidates believe, regardless of how razor-thin their victories. This party will crow about having the superior get-out-the-vote ground game — as if that were equivalent to having better policy proposals or values, or an agenda more meaningfully representative of voters' real interests. Should there be a split decision, the losers' personal flaws will be dissected to explain the anomaly.
At its core, though each election is a runoff where two people survived for a second round, Georgia highlights the absurdity of winner-take-all elections — especially when so many Americans are already frustrated by limited choices. Anticipating some delicious democracy in the Peach State, we got a democracy demolition derby instead.
Republicans' vaunted voter suppression of Black votes has been linked to the closeness of elections in the demographically evolving state. Every crime has three elements, and voter suppression is no exception. Racism is the motive. Control of the levers of government has provided the means. But the opportunity has derived from winner-take-all elections themselves. Close races in a changing state are exactly where voter suppression can be expected to pay the greatest dividends.
Around the world, the antidote for American winner-take-all insanity — seen so vividly in Georgia's Senate races as well as its super-close presidential outcome — is the measured rationality and true majority rule offered by proportional representation.
Yes, elections for president and the Senate must have single winners, because when there's only one person getting the job then the races must be winner-take-all.
But the House, state legislatures, and county or city councils could all be redesigned for proportional elections, and it's clear they should be.
The outsized importance, scorched earth tactics and exclusionary results endemic to such electoral battlegrounds as Georgia shouldn't be the way we determine the "soul of our nation." Duels between individual gladiators in the electoral arena are not the way to conclusively determine what America really stands for.
That's because what America stands for — or should stand for — is pluralism. The traditional national motto, after all, is "E pluribus unum," Latin for "Out of many, one." And that's one nation, not one winner.
What we need are proportional "participation trophies" for all voters and their preferred representatives. Fairly representing the interests of all voters tends towards coalition governance and true majority rule. Winner-take-all leads to polarization, even the arrival in the House this week of a Georgian who supports QAnon conspiracies — flying under cover of winning a "majority" election.
A shift of a mere 43,000 presidential votes — the cumulative margins of victory in Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin — would have created a tectonic shift in national policy by giving Donald Trump a second term. Several Senate races had outcomes almost as close, and had the Democrats won two of them then the stakes in Georgia would not be very high right now. Is it possible the future of our nation was determined by a North Carolina candidate's amorous text messages? For want of that nail, our nation might have lost its soul?
Close elections may be more thrilling (just ask the spectators in ancient arenas, we suppose) but they are not inherently more democratic. For voters unable to elect a representative of their choice, losing with 49 percent is no more democratic than getting a mere 30 percent.
Tossup winner-take-all races down ballot in Georgia were no prettier this year. The horror of the half-billion-dollar twin Senate contests was nearly matched by the relative cost of the contest in state House District 132, a politically purple area southeast of Atlanta. It's home to just one in every 180 Georgians, but the national Republican state legislative campaign organization, alone, invested $1 million to help defeat the House's Democratic minority leader by 666 votes with ads linking him (unfairly) to rioters and anarchists.
To be sure, the Democrats spent heavily on targeted races, too, and succeeded in defeating the GOP chairman of the state House Ways and Means Committee in an evolving area of suburban Gwinnett County.
Both races beg the question: Why not just have a system that flexibly adapts to such demographic and political changes, and is able to represent all voters?
The key to breaking the winner-take-all stranglehold is adopting a fair proportional method to elect representatives from districts with multiple members. (There are several possible systems in use across the globe.) With more seats to be filled, more voters can successfully elect a representative of choice — so long as a proportional system is deployed.
Averting your gaze from the Senate election for a moment, consider October's elections in "the other Georgia," the country half a world away. In their parallel system — split between winner-take-all, with majority-required runoffs, and proportional party seats — the ruling party won 75 percent of the seats in Parliament with just 48 percent voter support.
But that's not the main story. After even more unbalanced results in 2016, the government violently suppressed protests demanding greater proportionality. The United States condemned the crackdown and supported the demands, and American diplomats then played a critical role in brokering an agreement that will bring full proportionality to Georgia in three years.
Now it's time to watch the final battle of the four senatorial gladiators in the state of Georgia. Only two will be left standing. It would be nice to say the same about our democracy, but that's not certain. Perhaps the U.S. embassy in the other Georgia can help promote proportional democracy back home.
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On Dec. 14, the Electoral College will cast its votes. Barring any unforeseen outrage, a majority will vote for Joe Biden, the popular vote winner in the general election, to sighs of relief. Many may conclude the creaky Electoral College works most of the time, and that any fixes are just too hard to worry about.
That would be a mistake.
With a shift only .07 percent of the vote, we would have a second-place winner again, just as in 2000 and 2016.
And even when the Electoral College doesn't produce a second-place winner its structure deeply distorts U.S. democracy. It is the reason swing states dominate campaigns. It marginalizes voters in all other states, and it deters strong independent candidates from running. Moreover, minority rule enabled by the Electoral College is now embedded in Republican strategy. It's in their campaigns for president and governing in the White House — judging by President Trump's treatment of California, New York and other blue states.
The biggest problem with the Electoral College is not the issue most people talk about, that small-state voters have more weight. Many countries convey greater voting impact to less populated regions. In the United Kingdom, for example, the smallest parliamentary district has one-fifth the voting population — and thus five times the impact on who becomes prime minister — as the largest. Moreover, Republicans do not dominate small states: the 16 smallest divided evenly between the parties in 2016 and 2020.
The more serious problem with the Electoral College is that it compels states to allocate electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, giving swing states their dominant role and enabling the culture of minority rule now metastasized in the Republican Party.
Winner-take-all is not in the Constitution and was not part of the founders' intent. But it is very difficult to change without collective action among states. One idea, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, would bypass a constitutional amendment through an agreement for states to give all electoral votes to the national popular vote winner. National Popular Vote survived a referendum in Colorado with 52 percent of the vote. That close result doesn't bode well for the compact's chances in the Republican-controlled legislatures that still need to approve it. The Colorado referendum also highlighted a vulnerability: The plan can require states to give all their electoral votes to a candidate who did not win that state.
What's the alternative to National Popular Vote? Nebraska- or Maine-style allocation of electors by district won't work. That approach injects gerrymandering into presidential elections and would not have stopped a second-place Trump win in 2016.
The best alternative is a constitutional amendment offering something for both sides. Republicans want to keep the small-state advantage and the state-based, rather than national, calculation of results. Democrats want results that reflect the popular vote. Both priorities can be achieved by the Top-Two Proportional Amendment, which makes states allocate their electoral votes proportionally to the top two vote-getters in the state and replaces human electors with electoral votes expressed in decimal form.
Here are four reasons this is a good idea:
- The president would nearly always be the popular vote winner.
- With shares of electoral votes available in every state, candidates will have incentive to campaign nationwide.
- The "spoiler" problem would largely be fixed. (The 1 percent in Michigan four years ago for Jill Stein probably swung 16 electoral votes; with top-two, her impact would have been .05 of an electoral vote.)
- State results would finally reflect our true preferences, replacing the image of warring red and blue with different shades of purple.
It may sound borderline crazy to talk about something requiring broad-based national agreement when one side won't even accept the Nov. 3 election results. But the idea could appeal to Republican officials outside of swing states because it would bring the presidential campaign back to their states to help with down-ballot races.
More importantly, the democracy-distorting impact of the Electoral College is increasing, and it is not just an every-four-year problem. Allowing this institution to continue in its current form is not an option.
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