September 03, 2009

The best of both political worlds

The beauty of the Japanese electoral system is that it's so short. In a parliamentary democracy, federal elections can't usually be scheduled ahead of time, so campaign seasons are brief--about a month--and don't begin until parliament is dissolved. In the U.S., elections go on for freaking years.

Which isn't to say that Japanese campaigns are any more content-filled than U.S. campaigns. In fact, probably the opposite. They're about name recognition. Since the party or coalition in power elects the prime minister, at the end of the day, identification with the winning party is all that really matters.

Although the U.S. presidential election system is seriously flawed, the four-year election cycle does create executive stability--especially important for the commander-in-chief of the most powerful military in the world--that parliamentary democracies often lack, especially when the ruling coalition can replace the prime minister whenever it wants.

I believe the Electoral College is a good idea that preserves important constitutional principles of federalism and discourages the glamorous appeal of "Athenian democracy" that Madison feared. If you want to know what Madison was warning about, look at California and its execrable referendum process. Here he eloquently sums up the problem:

[T]here are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.

But two-hundred years on, the Electoral College needs a little help. Here's how I would fix it:

First, the House of Representatives would have four year terms, with even-numbered districts staggered by two years (aligning with every other Senate election). These "off year" elections would provide an additional electoral check on the executive.

Second, the existing primary system would elect the party leaders, i.e., the presidential candidates. Unlike parliamentary systems, this could be anybody meeting the constitutional qualifications. (I would entertain an amendment allowing naturalized citizens with sufficient tenure--say, twenty-four years--to qualify.)

Third, the Electoral College would consist of a joint session of Congress after the new Congress has been sworn in but before the inauguration of the new or reelected president. The sitting vice president votes only in case of a tie.

Fourth, to prevent gerrymandering, districts would have to conform to local political boundaries, specifically at the state/county/city/borough/ward level. Once the minimally "granular" district had reached its population threshold, it would become a multiple-member district.

States could voluntarily assign Electoral College votes according to district voting without a constitutional amendment. But without anti-gerrymandering measures, such a system could become as suspect as the current status quo.

The objective is to shift the focus of presidential politics to the congressional races at the district level, which would dampen change-the-world, pipe-dream campaign platforms and focus attention on retail politics. As has becoming quite clear with health care reform, presidential platforms are meaningless when Congress doesn't cooperate.

And while we're at it, two more amendments: no appointed or elected federal office--including the Supreme Court--could be continuously occupied for more than twenty-four years. (The presidency stays at eight.) A senator or representative would have to wait out an election cycle (two years) before running again. A judge would have to go through the confirmation process again (for example, be nominated Chief Justice).

The number of representatives should be doubled, with two elected by each district. Except for being sworn in, the junior representative would stay home and vote electronically.



# posted by Blogger Joe
The real fix is to get rid of the 17th amendment and make appointment of Senators by state legislatures mandatory (i.e. no states would be allowed to popularly elect Senators.)

While at it, I'd increase the number of representatives by at least five times. The more rabble in the house, the better.

I like the electoral college on federalist principals, but think it is rather lame. Why not just have two votes for every state be an all or nothing proposition, and then vote in a district be all or nothing. This would balance both state and district concerns. (It would also open the race for someone who does nothing but concentrate on rural districts and states.)
9/03/2009 3:38 PM

# posted by Blogger Eugene
The House of Representatives had 106 members in 1800, representing a population of 5,304,716. With a population of 304,059,724, maintaining that same ratio comes to 6076 (instead than 435 plus 6 non-voting members). That'd be a tight fit, but Japan's Lower House has 480 members representing a population of 127,288,416. The same proportion in the U.S. comes to 1147. That'd be a good start.
9/03/2009 4:09 PM

# posted by Anonymous Dan
I'll cut to the chase and declare the United States of America to be ungovernable. By this I mean the federal government was never intended to govern the affairs of the people and yet that is what it designs to do, and so it does with terribly bad results.

The only federal legislation that seems to make its way into law is that which effectively gives money to one group without taking it explicitly from anyone else. It's hard to dislike Santa Clause and no one knows this better than your devoted Representative. Unfortunately every Ponzi scheme runs out of money at some point.

Reform is nothing more than a buzzword. The two parties may be corrupt and inept but they have been successful in one endeavor: That of monopolizing the political system and learning how to take money from lobbyists no matter the season. This political monopoly is fully partnered with the duopoly of corporate media and commerce creating a near perfect barrier of entry to political entrepreneurs.

Constitutional reform is even less likely. Out of thousands of proposed amendments just 27 have been ratified. Given the amount of power assumed by the federal government why would its members take any action that would dilute it? Harking back to 1994 it took just 4 years for the Gingrich revolution to collapse and just eight years for "Conservative" Republicans to be fully corrupted themselves.

There is one impetus for change that I believe could force necessary reform. This would be the "constitutional crisis" driven by a few states refusing to implement federal law. I could see this especially happening with the Cap & Trade legislation and with any type of federally mandated insurance legislation. At some point it will be in the financial interest of a state to not accept the federal government's terms of service. When they do then what? That will be an interesting day.
9/03/2009 8:19 PM

# posted by Blogger Damien Sullivan
look at California and its execrable referendum process.

24 states have ballot initatives, how come they don't get looked at? Or Switzerland, which has elections 4 times a year? Perhaps the problem is with California's initiatives, not initiatives themselves.

And "Athenian democracy" -- which as far as I can tell worked pretty well, at least as well as the Roman Republic -- isn't exactly the same; 6000 people in an Assembly is more deliberative, more like New England town meetings, than mass-media megavotes.

Is your Electoral College i.e. joint Congress constrained by votes, or acting as originally designed to elect the President? The latter seems to basically give us fixed-term parliamentary system without no-confidence votes. I'm cautiously positive.

One thing about increasing the size of the House is that even today, that'd dilute the inegalitarian effect of the Senate in choosing the President. Nothing, of course, seems able to dilute the power of the Senate itself, where someone in Wyoming has 50 times the power of someone in California.

[T]here are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.

Yes, that's a risk. There's also a risk in undemocratic systems, that the persons in charge will not do what the people want even when that desire is considered and non-whimsical. What of that?
9/29/2009 12:22 AM

# posted by Blogger Eugene
I frown on all state initiatives and referenda. California's budget woes are the most obvious example of the problem. It's the "tragedy of the commons" writ large. California is a state bigger than most countries (a larger population than Canada) and ends up a bad compromise of both.

Greece and Rome practiced "democracy-by-aristocracy," based on a subset of the population (whose citizens were outnumbered by slaves), much like "democracy" in the Antebellum South. So although called "direct democracy," it was in practice like a permanent House of Lords.

Switzerland is a tad bigger in size and population than Massachusetts. The smaller the population and geographical size, the more direct the democracy can manageable be. In the U.S., the democratic rubber meets the road at the local level in town councils and school bond elections.

When it comes to education and law & order issues, the life of the average American is affected a lot more by what state legislatures do. Small, disciplined state legislatures (like Utah) are probably a lot closer to an amalgam of the Madison/Jefferson ideal.
9/29/2009 9:31 AM