5 Reforms That Would Break Open Our Political System
These days, the country is kind of a political mess. We have record low popularity for our Congress people, record amounts of partisanship, epic brinksmanship showdowns for every minor budget vote, and ever-growing economic difficulties that the government seems too paralyzed to address. Luckily, there are reforms out there that would fix a huge portion of these problems! Unfortunately, human nature is working against us in getting any of them acted upon.
1. Filibuster Reform:
These days, Congress is about as popular as a plague-infested rat currently in the process of eating a baby while eulogizing Stalin. Their approval ratings are only at about 10%. Much of our dissatisfaction with Congress comes from their seeming inability to react to any crises with any urgency or leadership. They always seem to do nothing but perpetuate petty partisan power playing. Every time a reform, budget, or debt limit is going through Congress, it seems to be stopped by "filibuster."
Filibuster used to be when someone would stand, talk on the Senate floor, and not shut up until the Senate became exasperated and moved on to something else. Now, the Senators don't even need to talk! They can just threaten to, and it counts as filibuster. There was recent talk of making it so filibustering Senators would actually have to talk again, but it was … filibustered. We ended up with no real reforms, once again. Why can't the Senate just do away with the whole thing?
Two reasons, the first being that if you like bipartisanship, you love the filibuster. The filibuster is the only incentive Senators have to actually work together and make deals. Second, what incentive do Senators have to change filibuster? The leadership of the Senate doesn't always like it, but to the average Senator, it gives them the ability to pretty much stop anything they don't like in its tracks. It gives individual senators immense power. And guess who chooses whether to reform the filibuster? Yeah. The individual senators.
2. Electoral College Reform:
Ridding ourselves of the Electoral College in presidential elections would change the game. "Swing states" would cease to become more valuable than any other state, the focus would shift to people instead of geographic areas, and every person's vote would be equal. Not convinced it would make a huge splash? Imagine the 2000s had an Al Gore presidency instead of a George Bush presidency. Whether that is your fantasy or your nightmare, you have to admit it would have changed things.
Why do we still have this gosh-darned 18th century relic of a system? Because to change it, we would need a Constitutional amendment. So what? Haven't we had like 27 of those? Yes, imaginary Socratic dialogue reader, but this one would be infinitely more difficult to pass. Amendments require three-fourths of the state legislatures to ratify them before they're passed. Look at who wins and loses with abolishing the College. Small states lose influence. Are more than one quarter of the states smaller than average? By definition, yes. So, ratification would be immensely difficult.
3. Public Campaign Finance:
This is a reform that has gained a lot of attention since the Citizens United case that legalized unlimited corporate campaign contributions. Since then, private "PAC" spending in support of or against candidates has skyrocketed. As a result, we get more negative ads, more money in politics, and more incentives for lawmakers to get in bed with the wealthiest special interests.
A popular progressive solution is public campaign finance, where candidates are given a certain amount of taxpayer dollars to run their campaigns, rather than relying on fundraising. The benefits of the system are greatly reducing the amount of time lawmakers would have to spend fundraising – freeing them to make laws – and reducing lobbyist influence.
Why does the whole country not fund their campaigns through this system? There are a couple reasons. One, a lot of people genuinely believe that lobbying with campaign contributions and PAC spending is an exercise in free speech covered under the Constitution. Second, and probably more important, these private campaign contributions exist because they benefit both the lawmakers and the interest groups. It is a symbiotic relationship. The majority of lawmakers would hate to give up that humongous incumbency advantage.
4. Preferential Voting:
Right now, the U.S. has a winner-take-all system with primaries for each party. Because only Republicans vote in the Republican primaries and only Democrats vote in the Democratic primaries, the candidates who make it through this process end up being more polarized. Plus, not wanting to "waste" votes, people tend to not vote for third-party candidates. So, what would fix this?
Preferential, or instant runoff, voting is a system where votes are ranked in order of preference and second choice candidates of those who voted for the candidate with the fewest votes are automatically allocated, and so on until someone gets a majority of all votes cast.
It has been used by Australia, Ireland, Great Britain and New Zealand in some of their elections, as well as in some state and local American elections. Preferential voting could even be used to replace primaries, and reduces extremism in elections, since it would be in the candidates' best interest to be listed as second choice and therefore appeal to third party voters and members of the opposite party. It also fosters third-party candidates without risking a spoiler effect.
Great! So, why don't we have this system already? Easy (you may be detecting a theme here): look at who wins and who loses. Preferential voting favors smaller parties, and reduces the strength of major political parties. Yes, the same major political parties that control whether we enact this reform.
5. Gerrymandering Reform:
Gerrymandering is the process of making weird-shaped counterintuitive electoral districts in order to reinforce the power of the incumbent party in any given state. It has given us some strange-looking districts. More importantly, it disenfranchises any voters not of the majority party in the new non-competitive districts. I think we can all agree that good old American competition is good, monopolies on power are bad, and disenfranchisement is wrong; so, why haven't we regulated Gerrymandering? Why not have some form of cross-party or non-partisan group redistrict?
For one thing, the Supreme Court has confirmed that partisan Gerrymandering is Constitutional, so long as it isn't purely based on racial lines. But, more importantly, look again at incentives. Who wins and who loses in abolishing Gerrymandering? The majority party in any given state loses. The same majority party that determines whether that state abolishes gerrymandering? Yup.