'Just Elections' - democracy's mechanics
November 10, 2002
Just Elections: Creating a Fair Electoral Process
in the United States. By Dennis F. Thompson. University of
Chicago Press. 262 pages. $27.50.
Americans are the world's
hyper-democrats. We hold more elections, more frequently, for more
offices (over 500,000) than any other nation in the world. We're the
only country that holds primary elections. The only one whose
national legislature stands for election every two years. The only
one that elects the vast majority of its judges.
Given the value we
place on elections, it's remarkable how poorly run and poorly
attended we've allowed them to become - and how little time we spend
pondering whether there might be alternative electoral systems that
would better serve such core (but often conflicting) democratic
values as equality, liberty, inclusiveness and popular sovereignty.
Into this breach comes an exceptionally lucid tour of our electoral
horizon by one of the nation's leading political philosophers,
Dennis F. Thompson of Harvard.
All Americans got a crash course in
the frailties of our elections two years ago, of course, during the
soap-operatic overtime of a deadlocked presidential race. Thompson
spends a bit of time examining some of the many issues raised in
Bush vs. Gore, but he doesn't linger there.
As a theorist, he's
more interested in exploring the intersection between values and
processes than he is in poring over butterfly ballots. He wonders:
Is our winner-take-all system of elections the best way to maximize
representation for all citizens? Is racial gerrymandering
permissible if its intent is to ensure that minorities have a voice
in government policy-making? Do term limits serve our democratic
values? Ballot initiatives? Should voters be permitted to write in
"Donald Duck" as a statement of protest? Should the networks be
permitted to release exit poll results before all polls close?
Should we pay people to vote?
His answers are sometimes surprising
and always thoughtful. He's not against paying people to vote, for
example - likening the practice to paying citizens nominal fees to
cover their expenses when they serve on juries.
And he thinks that
we'd have a stronger democracy if we switched to a system of
multimember legislative districts in which citizens could engage in
"cumulative voting." Under such a system, citizens would have as
many votes as there were seats to be filled in a given multimember
district, and could distribute them as they chose, including giving
all to one candidate if they wished. This, he argues, would enable
self-defined minorities to achieve representation without benefit of
the sort of racial gerrymandering he finds problematic.
enough of a pragmatist to acknowledge that many of his notions
aren't about to be embraced in practice. On the subject of money in
politics, however, he shows a keener instinct for the possible,
proposing reforms that focus less on spending ceilings (which
restrict speech and liberty) and more on spending floors (which
enhance choice, information and competition).
This is not a book
for the casual political tourist. But if you care deeply about our
hyper-democracy and worry that its electoral processes have grown
creaky, it's a thought-provoking tour de force.
Paul Taylor is president and
founder of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a public interest
group based in Washington, D.C. He was a reporter and foreign
correspondent for 25 years, including 15 at The Washington Post,
where his beats included politics. His See How They Run was
published by Knopf in 1990.