'Just Elections' - democracy's mechanics

By Paul Taylor
Published November 10th 2002 in Baltimore Sun

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.

Thompson is 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.