Forward: A Pro-Democracy Commission for the United States

Matthew Cossolotto

Welcome to The Center for Voting and Democracy's second annual Voting and Democracy Report. Our 1995 edition takes a comprehensive look at voting system reform in the United States and abroad. The report also touches on other important democratic issues, including term limits, campaign finance reform, voter registration, electoral administration and ballot access rules.

Last year's report covered a number of significant domestic and international elections and electoral reform efforts that took place during the 1992-1993 timeframe. I used the Foreword to highlight a significant international trend toward the "mixed member" system of proportional representation (PR). By the end of 1993, after adoption of forms of mixed member by such countries as Italy, Russia and New Zealand, close to half a billion people around the world lived in countries that used some version of this "German-style" voting system.

Mixed member systems combine the election of representatives from single member districts -- usually comprising about half of the legislative body -- with the use of PR to elect the remaining representatives. Mixed members systems thus combine the best of both worlds: a single, local representative with some measure of overall fairness and proportionality based on voter preferences.

The Need for a National Commission

This year I want to use this space to focus attention, not so much on any particular trend as on an increasingly pressing need. It has become more apparent than ever that the United States desperately needs to create a national commission -- together as appropriate with state and local commissions -- to examine the entire range of issues related to the health of our democracy. The impromptu agreement in New Hampshire between President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich to support creation of a blue-ribbon commission on election law and lobbying is both timely and heartening.

After all, public opinion polls consistently reflect widespread public frustration with "politics as usual." The American people are alarmed about the powerful role played by "special interests" in shaping public policy. Clearly, the time has come for us to get serious about cleaning up our political process. Giving the proposed commission the powers of the military base closing commission -- to be able to put a package of reforms before Congress for an up-or-down vote -- would give the commission an important opportunity to effect real change.

It would be a big mistake, however -- and the United States would miss a big opportunity -- if the proposed reform commission's focus is narrowly trained on lobbying and campaign finance reform, as some have advocated.

Those are key issues, to be sure. But by themselves they simply don't go far enough. Dealing with those issues alone -- and failing to address other, more systemic maladies -- would be like rushing an accident victim into the emergency room with four broken limbs and multiple internal injuries and treating only the left arm and the right leg. The hospital could rightly be sued for malpractice.

The proposed commission's mandate should be broadened to treat other illnesses that have plagued America's body politic for many decades. It is time for a "pro-democracy commission" to address the full range of issues that contribute to long-festering voter frustration. This Voting and Democracy Report: 1995 provides a good checklist of issues for any future reform commission's consideration. Such a comprehensive investigation should lead to the integrated proposal for reform that we need.

Consider, for instance, the Supreme Court's 1995 decision against Georgia's 11th Congressional District on the grounds that its boundaries were drawn specifically to create a "majority-minority" district. Whatever one's judgment on the merits of this ruling, it certainly casts a shadow over the methods used in recent decades to increase minority representation in Congress. The ruling also demonstrates starkly the limits of single-member districting schemes as a way to ensure representational "fairness." Single-member districts and "fairness" or "proportionality" simply do not mix.

Representative Cynthia McKinney, who represents Georgia's 11th congressional district, is to be applauded for announcing her intention to introduce a bill to repeal the 1967 statute that requires single-member districts for Congress. She specifically wants to see various PR voting systems considered as viable alternatives. A properly conceived "pro-democracy" commission should be empowered to consider other options.

Consider also the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down the right of individual states or Congress itself (short of a constitutional amendment) to limit the terms of representatives in Congress. A pro-democracy commission could take a sober, non-partisan look at the issue of term limits.

What about the ongoing war that the two major political parties have been waging in order to make it all-but impossible for "third parties" to win the right to place candidates on the ballot? It is no secret that the two major parties have shamelessly used restrictive ballot access laws to block "third parties" from posing a challenge to the existing two-party "duopoly."

Beyond the issue of "racial gerrymandering" discussed above, we also need a non-partisan commission to examine the odoriferous practice of "gerrymandering" legislative districts, which too often results in the creation of oddly shaped "designer" districts that have "incumbent protection" and "challengers need not apply" written all over them.

To avoid stumbling unprepared toward another divisive round of political redistricting following the national census in the year 2000, a pro-democracy commission should recommend ways to revamp our fundamentally flawed redistricting process. Allowing self-interested politicians in various state capitals to draw legislative district boundaries leaves the foxes in charge of the chicken coop, creating an obvious conflict-of-interest situation that would be labeled "insider trading" if it occurred on Wall Street.

The Role of the Voting System

A critically important issue -- probably the most important -- is closely related to gerrymandering. In fact, it is the only viable solution to the gerrymandering fiasco. It concerns our antiquated voting system which we were unfortunate enough to have inherited from our British colonial rulers a few centuries ago. Our voting system, called plurality or "winner-take-all," badly needs a modern tune-up.

As described in a recent USA Today editorial advocating PR, "The nasty fact is that our winner-take all election system, adopted from 18th century England and unchanged, has the potential to leave up to 49.9% of the voters in any district feeling unrepresented whatever their race or ethnicity. Most other democracies have moved beyond us in making their systems more representative."

Here we should follow the example of New Zealand. In 1985, a Royal Commission was formed to study alternative voting systems and to make recommendations for changing New Zealand's British-American style plurality system. After exploring the pros and cons of the full spectrum of voting systems used by many different countries, the commission urged adoption of a mixed member PR system similar to that used in Germany. Voters ratified that recommendation in a 1993 referendum.

Switching our voting system to some form of PR would not require a constitutional amendment and would bring America closer to the mainstream of mature democracies in Europe. In one fell swoop, PR would create a much more competitive political environment, a veritable "free market" politics, and empower voters whose votes would not be squandered on losing candidates.

Adoption of PR would also address one of the most embarrassing shortcomings of our current politics: dismally low voter turnout. Why do so few Americans bother to vote? A pro-democracy reform commission that examines the impact of our voting system on voter participation would go a long way toward answering that question.

Yes, a blue-ribbon commission should be formed to address campaign finance and lobbying reform. But by looking into issues like term limits, gerrymandering, ballot access, voter turnout and alternative voting systems, it just might succeed in putting "dem" -- the people -- back into our definition and practice of democracy. And that would be an achievement and a legacy of which both President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich -- not to mention the American people -- could rightfully be proud.

On behalf of The Center for Voting and Democracy's dedicated members and volunteers, I hope you will enjoy the 1995 edition of our Voting and Democracy Report. We think it provides students, practitioners and advocates of democracy an invaluable resource, one that we hope will help to stimulate a more informed debate about voting system alternatives. That debate needs to be joined in earnest without delay, because -- to paraphrase that effective tagline from the United Negro College Fund -- a vote truly is a terrible thing to waste.

Matthew Cossolotto, president of the Center for Voting and Democracy, served as an aide to then-congressman Leon Panetta and to former House Speaker Jim Wright. Cossolotto is author of the recently released Almanac of European Politics 1995 (Congressional Quarterly, 1995).

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