Forging a Living Democracy

By John B. Anderson and Robert Richie
October 31, 1997

 Two centuries ago Thomas Paine wrote that political institutions are the slowest to adapt to advances in technology and knowledge. The root of the problem then and now is that elections often are a poor substitute for the free market. When governments are immune from real competitive pressures, institutional inertia rules.

November 4th is election day in New Jersey and Virginia and cities such as New York, Detroit and Atlanta. Once again, signs of our political depression are everywhere. Fewer than one in ten state legislative races will be remotely competitive -- no surprise, as one in three state legislative races in the 1990s have not drawn two major party candidates. Most New York city council races were decided in primaries where fewer than one in five registered voters participated.

At what point does a democracy cease to be democratically governed? We largely maintain the key freedoms of the Bill of Rights, but with the active consent of fewer and fewer citizens. Bill Clinton was re-elected with the support of fewer than one in four eligible voters. The Republicans now running Congress won even fewer votes. Our low turnout does not mean people trust their leaders; only one in twenty Americans believed all the major promises made by President Clinton and congressional leaders about their budget deal this summer.

Clinton has made much of building a bridge to the 21st century. Surely our bridge needs stronger democratic foundations, but too many political leaders have lost the spirit of innovation that guided our founders. They avoid questions about our basic electoral rules that determine the accountability of our government.

Here are a just a few issues that should be debated:

 * Number of representatives: The size of the House of Representatives was increased by 49 seats in 1911, marking the fifth consecutive decade that it grew by at least 30 Members. It has not changed since, even as the average number of people in House districts has tripled. The end result is increasingly expensive elections -- and taxation with less representation.

 * Bicameral state legislatures: Because of an interest in voters being able to hold legislators accountable, no other mature democracy has two legislative branches of equal power. Yet 49 out of 50 state legislatures follow the bicameral model of our U.S. Constitution that was designed as part of the "grand compromise" to balance states' rights with the principle of one person, one vote. Two houses in a state legislature undercut accountability and are simply redundant when they both represent geographic interests.

 * Single-member districts: All U.S. House elections and most state legislatures and major city councils are elected from single-member districts. Single-member districts mean that 51% of voters allegedly "represent" 100% of people in the district. They are based on the assumption that geography determines voters' vital interests -- an assumption rooted in the 18th century, not in the multi-faceted, mobile and interconnected world of today. By limiting the opportunities for non- geographic communities of interest to win representation, single-member districts make where we live more important what we think. They also give incumbents the opportunity to gerrymander district lines so that they quite literally choose their constituents before their constituents choose them -- artificially propping up a two-party system that poorly reflects our country's political diversity and consigns most Americans to "no-choice" legislative races.

Most other mature democracies have jettisoned exclusive reliance on single-member districts in favor of systems of proportional representation. Such systems mirror a free market economy, with voters having the choices they treasure so highly as consumers. A political force winning 51% of votes earns a majority, but not everything. A party winning 10% wins its fair share of representation.

 * Plurality elections: Of the few mature democracies still using "51%-wins-all" elections, fewer still use plurality elections in which winners don't need majority support. Some nations use run-off elections. Australia uses an innovative "instant run-off" system where voters rank candidates in order of choice. Ballots are counted so that winners need majority support and voters are freed of worries over "wasting" their votes on "spoilers" with no chance to win. Just last month [October 30], Ireland elected its president by the instant run- off. Irish voters chose among five candidates, yet still were assured of a majority winner. This stands in stark contrast to our plurality voting in the United States, where in 1992 three strong presidential candidates split the vote so that Bill Clinton was elected despite winning a popular majority in only one state.

It is time for national and state discussions of our electoral rules. Thomas Jefferson wrote in his twilight years that "Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times." Our leaders who think that our democracy is beyond such re-examination are betraying the spirit of our founders -- and the trust of all of us.


John B. Anderson is a former Member of Congress (R- Illinois) and president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Voting and Democracy. Robert Richie is the Center's executive director.

Commentaries Index