Reforming U.S. elections won’t happen overnight – but let’s start the discussion

In part one of what has become a series of postings, I wrote about what the Democrats can do to improve their party structure. In part two, I wrote about how the Democrats can improve their politicking. While these two articles touched on how the Democrats can improve their own party, this coverage avoided any focus on the structure of the political system, and how that affects Democrats’ ability to campaign and govern. Gerrymandering, money in politics, and voting procedures are key institutional factors that prevent good candidates from winning and enacting decent policies. 

Gerrymandering is a process of manipulating the construction of electoral districts to favor one party over another. It may sound over-the-top, but it is a rampant practice across the United States. The term is thrown around on the news a lot without being clearly explained.

Let me provide an example of gerrymandering: presume that there is a small state with only 10,000 residents, half of whom are Republicans and half of whom are Democrats. If you wanted to split this state into four districts, the fairest way would be to have 2,500 people in each district: 1,250 Republicans and 1,250 Democrats. Elections would be competitive, and candidates would have to work hard to win.

But, let’s say that the Republicans gained control and split the districts differently. In one district, they placed 2,300 Democrats and 200 Republicans. But, in the other three districts, they split it up so that there are 900 Democrats and 1,600 Republicans in each. While the Democrats would be able to consistently win one district, the Republicans would have perfect control over the other three. None of these elections would be competitive.

This is gerrymandering. And it is happening all over the country.

Once census numbers are taken, voting districts can be redrawn to account for population movement or change. After the GOP cleaned house in state elections during the 2010 midterm elections, they were able to work from the ground up to ensure that they were able to maintain electoral dominance. Even a cursory view of voting districts from Pennsylvania or Florida showcases this absurdity.

I have no doubt that Democrats would do this too if they were in power. In fact, Democratic precincts in Maryland have been accused of doing just that. Ending gerrymandering should be a cause for concern of everyone. Republicans might turn a blind eye when they are in charge, but what happens when they’re out of power?

There are a number of proposals to fix this problem. Some people argue that independent commissions should be set up to take this decision out of the hands of politicians. However, this would still place power in the hands of people who could be corrupted. Others argue that applying mathematical formulas, such as the shortest-splitline algorithm, could be a solution free of bias. Critics of this argue that while this produces mathematically workable districts, it would inevitably lead to members of the same community being arbitrarily split into different voting blocks.

It is difficult to say which approach should be adopted, but both options seem better than the status quo. If Democrats hope to regain control of state and federal legislative branches, gerrymandering reform needs to be prioritized.

Gerrymandering is ultimately problematic because it disenfranchises voters, but there are also more direct ways to do so: in many states, voting is not nearly as accessible as it should be. In the past, I have written about the terrible proposals for voter ID laws, as well as how people who live in U.S. districts and territories are unable to participate in democracy. It doesn’t end there.

It is difficult to talk about voting in the United States due to how different laws are depending on your location. Some states offer same-day voter registration, but others do not. Some states have mail-in voting, whereas other states ban it altogether. In presidential elections, some candidates are on the ballot in some states but not in others.

Two members of Congress from two different states could be elected to the same legislative body and have the same powers, but have been elected in drastically different ways. That’s hugely problematic: given that these are the people who create laws for the entire country, federal elections should have a standardized set of regulations for every locality.

And what should those voting regulations be? While safeguarding against abuse, let’s make it as easy as possible for valid voters to cast a ballot. There are many ways to do just that. Voters should automatically be registered when they turn 18–just like in Oregon. Allow voters to vote 46 days early–just like in Minnesota. Send ballots by mail to increase voter turnout–just like in Arizona. And let’s make Voting Day a national holiday or move it to a weekend, just like in a number of other countries.

People in the United States should also reconsider the use of the Electoral College in presidential elections. It not only does not meet its goal of better representing smaller states, but it also disenfranchises voters in their own states. If you’re a Republican in Connecticut or a Democrat in Mississippi, voting for your party’s candidate is an exercise in futility. Not to mention that it is wildly undemocratic, as it is mathematically possible albeit unlikely for a candidate to receive only 22% of the vote and still win a majority in the Electoral College.

We no longer live in a time where presidential elections are hampered by the technological challenges of communication or are imbued with racist concerns of retaining slavery, we should rethink this relict of the past. This issue affects all voters, but Democrats should have a real bone to pick: all four presidents who won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote were Republicans.

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Photo captured March 1, 2018.

While reforming how elections work and ending gerrymandering are important measures, perhaps of equal importance is how campaigns are financed. Democrats should appeal to the 98% of adults who believe campaign finance reform is necessary.

Discussions surrounding campaign finance have gone on for years, but were amplified in the wake of the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC. This broad ruling defied precedent to allow corporations to spend an unlimited amount of money at any time to support any candidate or cause. Although donating money to a candidate or cause itself has some limits, corporations are able to use independent expenditure-only committees–known as “superPACs”–to anonymously fund advertisements. As a result, laws in nearly half of the states were struck down.

The issue at hand is not whether corporations should be able to express political views, but rather if they should be able to do so in an anonymous, virtually unfettered manner. If candidates need to court wealthy supporters for campaign contributions–directly or indirectly–then these candidates will likely wind up supporting policies that cater to those donors.

Some people believe that overturning the Citizens United case will be sufficient. However, U.S. politics prior to 2010 was not a utopia by any means. Democrats should consider policies that could make the system more resilient to wealthy voices having disproportionate amounts of sway.

Although supportive of the Citizens United ruling, the American Civil Liberties Union has some good suggestions for doing so:

In our view, the answer to that problem is to expand, not limit, the resources available for political advocacy. Thus, the ACLU supports a comprehensive and meaningful system of public financing that would help create a level playing field for every qualified candidate. We support carefully drawn disclosure rules. We support reasonable limits on campaign contributions and we support stricter enforcement of existing bans on coordination between candidates and super PACs.

Unlike merely supporting the overturning of Citizens United–which would probably require nominating a new Supreme Court justice or two–these are tangible policies that Democrats can get behind.

Democrats have work to do. Opposing Donald Trump might bring some short-term results, but it is not a long-term strategy. Eventually, Democrats will return to power, and when they do, they will need to govern. The steps I have outlined in these three articles present a pathway for them to not only win elections and win political fights, but also to improve the world we live in. And that’s ultimately the goal, isn’t it?


In Post Notes, I add some additional thoughts or context to a blog post I’ve previously written. That can be found here.