Monday, February 4, 2013

Dysfunctional Democracy

Its somewhat laughable that we hold up our democracy as a model system for nations to emulate. In almost every aspect of the democratic process, from voting and elections to the legislative process, the system has been corrupted. There  are no shortage of issues demanding attention, but if we could affect change in three particular areas they could be a catalyst for more pervasive change throughout the political process.

One is gerrymandering. The 2010 census gave Republicans an enormous opening to reshape voting districts in their states, and the result has been a electoral map that where all but 25-30 of congressional districts are non-competitive. Unfortunately the courts have set such a high standard to prove that the maps are discriminatory that it will require creative, aggressive work by independent attorneys to effectively challenge the status quo. But it is a fight worth undertaking, for the lack of competition in elections is contrary to the very nature of a true, vigorous democracy.

A second area is voter turnout and the notion of "one man, one vote." There are a multitude of reasons why individuals do not vote, but at the very least a concerted effort should be made to increase participation through a combination of "moral" suasion and increasing the number of registered voters. Some simple math will illustrate the problem: In a typical presidential election year, 75% of voting age Americans are registered to vote. Of that 75%, approximately 60% will vote in the best of elections. Of that 60%, around 52% end up voting for the winner. Applying Bayes Theorem, the end result is that of the total number of voting age Americans in the country, about 23 1/2 % actually vote for the eventual winner. In off year congressional races, where voter turnout is at most half the turnout of presidential years, the actual number of people voting for the winners is even more deplorable. When you consider that the demographic of actual voters is skewed towards white, elderly, suburbans, we have a system that underrepresents a significant number of our citizens.

To me, the best solution is a switch to approval voting, where individuals can vote for any or all candidates that one would approve of. Such a system would encourage more people to run for office, and might also encourage more people to vote, removing the idea that a person's vote might be "wasted."

Of course the biggest impediment to changing the level and character of voter participation is that our current senators and representatives were elected with the existing system, so any changes would constitute a possible threat to their ability to win reelection. There is no incentive for our legislators to affect change, and since Congress has control over that process, without public pressure, or without finding legislators willing to put our democracy over their own self-interest, their is little chance that change will occur.

And finally, the voting procedure in the Senate must be changed. One aspect is the fillibuster, a procedure that has been recently subject to enormous abuse, stalling votes and grinding the legislative process to a halt. Some senators are trying to change the process, actually requiring fillibustering Senators to physically appear in the Senate well and speak during the fillibuster.

In addition to the fillibuster, the recent requirement that "significant" legislation require a "super majority" of 60 votes has resulted in a huge power shift to those in the minority who wish to thwart legislation they disagree with. Rather than need 51 votes to reject legislation, now opponents only need 41 votes.

Our Founders intended democracy to be run through majority rule, with the courts being the final arbitor when the rights of minorities or minority views are being trampled. It is the courts that are empowered to guard against the "tyranny of the majority," not the voting procedures of the Senate.

The requirement of a super majority has corrupted law making, and unfortunately it may take a legal challenge to force change in our legislative body since neither party seems motivated to affect the necessary changes.

Redrawing congressional districts, improving participation by both candidates and voters, and returning integrity to the legislative process are the three most critical needs if we are to begin correcting the dysfunctional nature of our democracy. Far from being an example for the world to emulate, our current system demonstrates what can happen over time when democracy becomes "tired" and loses its vibrancy and "soul."

The late political economist Mancur Olsen, in The Rise and Decline of Nations, warned that stable, mature economies and political systems can easily be corrupted by a small number of well organized interest, and that as a result both our economy and government will suffer. The current state of our democracy is fertile ground for such groups to unfairly influence our government and set in motion the decline he feared.

I wish I could consider this a call for action, but I'm afraid it is little more than the concerns of a citizen who feels helpless to stop the destruction of our democracy. I pray that there are those out there with the power to affect change that will take it upon themselves to challenge the status quo. There is so much at stake.

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