home Commentary, North America, Politics Okay, NOW can we have election reform?

Okay, NOW can we have election reform?

The last hope of overturning the election result has been shattered with the “failsafe” of the Electoral College going to Trump. Sure, there were faithless electors, but the vast majority of them flipped away from Clinton – proving that idealistic claims that it was designed to keep Trump out are nonsense.

As long as we’re scrutinizing our electoral process, we might as well face the fact that the Electoral College is not the only thing that’s broken. Candidates regularly win with a minority of the vote, the two-party system is entrenched, our Congress does not reflect our population, and votes are actively being suppressed. As an added bonus, our winner-take-all system makes it vulnerable to foreign influence and demagoguery. On the bright side, this has caught the attention of a few lawmakers and pundits on both sides of the aisle, so we should seize the opportunity to open the conversation about electoral reform.

Ditch the Electoral College

Any degree of change to our election system would be positive, but the most simple and obvious fix is still to get rid of the Electoral College. It is outdated and pointless. The United States is the only country that decides its head of state this way. Every other country without a ruling tyrant (or cases like China where the legislature chooses the head of state) trusts the people to democratically choose their leader.

Senator Barbara Boxer has introduced legislation to get rid of the Electoral College, but it will die as soon as the new congress sits. Public opinion has been thrown off the scent by nonsense excuses like the Electoral College helps rural areas. Between Iowa and New Hampshire alone, there were over 1,000 visits by presidential candidates in the past year and hundreds to New York and California, but the rural “flyover states” most often received only one or two each.

Change the way we vote

Even without changing the Electoral College, many of the problems with the general election, congressional elections, and the primaries could be solved by doing away with first-past-the-post voting. First-past-the-post seems logical until we see that a shocking 19 presidents won elections with less than 50 percent of the popular vote (not counting the first 10 elections where the popular vote wasn’t recorded). This means that the majority of Americans (not even including those who were not allowed to vote until well into the last century) did not vote for those 19 presidents — nearly half of those who have occupied the Oval Office.

In using first-past-the-post to elect the head of state, we are joined only by sub-Saharan African countries and a few others scattered across the globe. Many democracies use the two-round system, and instant-runoff voting is another option. These are essentially two ways of allowing people to rank their choices, and ranked-choice voting been used in several areas of the U.S. for years already. A good example is San Francisco, which decided to implement a ranked-choice system in 2002. It has subsequently played a decisive role in several elections and has been unanimously upheld as constitutional by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The system can be easily explained with a simplified example. Let’s say there are three candidates: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. If someone were a Bernie Bro, instead of being forced to strategically vote for Clinton, fearing that a vote for Sanders is a vote for Trump, they could rank their votes. So they put a number 1 next to Sanders, a 2 next to Clinton, and a 3 next to Trump. If Sanders did not have enough votes, he would be eliminated from the race, and the Bernie Bro’s vote would next go to Clinton. In this method, third parties can be supported, strategic voting and protest votes are eliminated, and people are more accurately represented.

Imagine this system during the GOP primaries. If voters had ranked their votes instead of dividing them between all of those candidates, a Trump nomination may not have occurred.

Organize Congress proportionally

Anyone who lived through the primaries understands how nonsensical they are. First-past-the-post definitely exacerbates this situation, but it also has to do with the way the organization of Congress suppresses third parties.

Since The Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929, our House of Representatives has been set at 435 members, regardless of population. Not only does this mean that each year our representation becomes more diluted with the growing population, but also, the two major parties fight to gerrymander districts to give themselves just enough of a majority to win the sole seat for that district. Meanwhile, any voter who does not align with the well-funded, mainstream parties loses out.

Many countries around the world have solved this with proportional representation in their legislatures. This list includes modern Japan, which was set up by the Allied occupation after World War II. Even 70 years ago we had learned enough from our outdated system to improve upon it by giving a new form of Congress to the Japanese, yet we are still stuck with our antiquated system of representation.

There are many ways proportional representation with multiple parties could be achieved, but a quick example shows why any of these systems are much more democratic than ours. Let’s say the state of Example is 60 percent Democrat, 20 percent Republican, and 20 percent Independent. In our current system, this district gets one Democrat for their House representative because of their relatively low population. However, there are systems like mixed-member proportional representation (MMR), where the citizens of Example would get multiple representatives according to their votes: Two could be Democrats, one Republican, and one Independent. The district’s multiple, proportionally elected congressmen would represent the people much more accurately than a single Democrat could.

With proportional legislatures, many parties that more directly represent the various wills of the people are formed. Because nobody is actually all Democrat or all Republican.

Ensure that everybody has the right to vote

One of the most disturbing things about this election was the open bragging by those like North Carolina’s GOP about suppressing the black vote. Trump’s campaign similarly explained their voter suppression efforts in a very candid way. The blatant effort to keep certain groups from voting should be a clear red flag, but the GOP is instead using it as evidence of success.

Very simply put, democracy is not democracy if certain groups are not allowed to vote. Ideally, we can someday talk about things like changing Election Day from a Tuesday to give a voice to the working poor, giving U.S. territories the right to vote, or allowing criminals to vote. In our current situation, however, we need to get past open voter suppression before we can even deal with questions of how to give access to everyone who deserves a voice.

Voter ID laws, the purging of voter rolls, and the shortening of early voting periods were the biggest culprits in the 2016 election. These practices have been thoroughly proved as discriminatory and undemocratic. Stopping them should be an obvious priority, and it is baffling that it is not.

This list of possible changes is not exhaustive or complete. There are many ways we could achieve a fairer system, but what the solutions all have in common is the idea that government should not be winner-take-all. An election should not be a devastating blow or a complete 180 from the previous presidency. We are too polarized as a nation – anyone can agree with that – and it is because of the systemic perpetuation of our bipolar political system.

Photo: Daniel Huizinga/Creative Commons


Nicholas Barkdull

Nicholas Barkdull has written for News Lens International, the Foundation for Economic Education, and others. He is also a regular contributor to FLURT magazine and a doctoral student in Social Research and Cultural Studies.