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Eye On The Ball | Focus

The current fight over voting rights was bound to lose at the national level. Focusing on DC distracts from the real opportunities.

You know why the Yankees always win, Frank?
'Cause they have Mickey Mantle?
Nah, it's 'cause the other teams can't stop staring at those damn pinstripes.

As much as Harry and I are apt to deal in complicated and exhaustive definitions as to what precisely “democracy” or “liberal democracy” is, there’s a quick and dirty method that covers about 90% of the substance in 10% of the verbiage. With pretty good accuracy, you can judge democratic health just by looking at how often power changes hands, or even whether it seems possible. Regular changes of power mean the system is generally working to allow meaningful and engaging political competition. You could be more exact, but that’ll get you a thumbs up/thumbs down rating pretty easily.

In taking a look at the United States and asking, “how often does power change hands,” you’d find that we seem in fine shape. But if you ask whether power changing hands seems highly possible or if it happens peacefully, you’d see that things are not good. The trouble is that competitive elections, particularly on the national level, don’t seem long for this world.

Why exactly America is slipping toward soft authoritarianism is debatable. The symptoms, though, are obvious. A president denies the results of an election he lost. His supporters break into the Capitol building. Some bear the war-flags of a regime that killed more Americans than any other. Others come armed with an apparent intent to kill. Lawmakers across the country refuse to condemn this activity, while some even endorse it and fan the flames of the conspiracy theories that motivated it. You get the picture and probably know it well.

These symptoms, all of them, are dramatic and eye-catching, many even terrifying. But they aren’t the worst. After all, our institutions held. The insurrectionists of January 6th wandered the House chamber somewhat aimlessly once they’d breached it—they had no real plan, just a kind of primal rage. Overturning an election through brute force just isn’t something that can be achieved solely by civilians, even as they threaten the lives of elected officials, wreak havoc on the United States’ international reputation, and threaten even the most basic forms of national cohesion.

The really insidious developments aren’t happening at the federal level, as states across the country draw up new congressional districts that slant more and more seats in the House toward one side or another. Our elections are set to become even more meaningless, as turning out to vote matters less and less in the face of outcomes virtually predetermined by partisan districting.

Democrats in Congress insist that voting rights legislation will address this problem. They’ve got two bills up their sleeve, but neither will pass without an overruling or modification of the filibuster. That seems wildly unlikely at this point, with multiple Democrats voicing an unwillingness to touch the somehow sacrosanct rule (which was accidentally invented by Aaron Burr).

Even take for granted that these bills will pass, that somehow the dynamic and persuasive leadership of Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer—which has proven so effective alongside the Biden administration—will win the day. The legislation doesn’t actually fix the problems we’re facing as a democracy.

The bills have two core focuses: make the act of voting more accessible and end partisan gerrymandering. Now, to that first objective, there’s no doubt that everyone who is eligible to vote should be able to do so easily. The legislation is full of common sense measures like making election day a national holiday, allowing for same-day registration, and guaranteeing mail-in voting. There’s little question in my mind that these are good things to do. All of these are already done by some states, and there’s surpassingly little evidence these policies undermine electoral integrity.

To the second objective, ending partisan gerrymandering—the drawing of congressional  districts with the intent to benefit one party or another—the changes aren’t sufficient. A profile of the bill from the Brennan Center for Justice explains the Democrats’ proposed policy well. Essentially, if a state map seems too biased, that state will have to prove to a panel of judges that it was the fairest map possible. However, as Harry explained well in an Insight some time back, while this may address the most obvious partisan gerrymandering, it doesn’t actually address the unrepresentative nature of our single-member district system.

In a single-member district system like ours, there’s no clear answer as to what constitutes a “fair map.” Is it districts drawn according to population distributions and geographic features, even if that delivers highly slanted results? Is it the representation of ethnic and racial minorities in so-called “majority-minority” districts? Is it districts drawn to be as competitive as possible, even if that means subdividing neighborhoods and local areas? Is it districts drawn to try to generate results which mirror statewide party registration or alignment? Take a look at this tool from FiveThirtyEight to get an idea of just some of the different routes and results. Playing around with it goes a long way towards demonstrating all of the tensions and contradictions between even the best-intentioned map-drawing.

The options are effectively endless, and so this new legislation simply uses past elections as a benchmark for fair results. That’s one answer, but it’s hardly clear that actually makes elections fair, rather than just keeping them stagnant.

As long as we have the electoral system that we have, there will always be a white whale of representative elections somewhere off in the distance, because single-member district electoral systems simply aren’t designed with that in mind. They’re designed to produce two parties which compete in oppositional politics—nothing more.

If you’re familiar with the concept of proportional representation, which we’ve discussed in some previous articles and podcast episodes, you may be thinking we ought to ditch the two-party system entirely. It’s not a good way of actually measuring or representing citizen preference, and we ought to institute a proportional representation system to solve these problems. Indeed, it would solve many of our problems, including gerrymandering, but, to say nothing of the new problems it might generate, it’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future, at least at the national level.

After all, when we talk about gerrymandering, while it has national consequences, we’re talking about a state-level problem. Obsession with some grand national solution to an issue repeated dozens of times across the country strikes me as a mistake, not least because there’s no incentives at the national level that would bring a majority of legislators to significantly change the game; you don’t want to lose a job. Unfortunately, incentives are also askew among state legislators for the same reason.

But maybe there’s another way. State and local policy-making offers a unique road not available at the national level. While rules vary widely from state to state, just about everywhere there is some form of ballot measure or referendum process for the passage of new laws or constitutional amendments. These processes allow citizens of a state to put legislation to a vote directly, circumventing state lawmakers. This opens up enormous opportunity for innovative policymaking.

I want to take a look at Missouri in particular, because, well, I’m from there and know it best. With enough signatures, organizations and activists in Missouri can put statutes or even constitutional amendments to a vote. The same is true in many municipalities within Missouri, like St. Louis, which offers a recent and encouraging example of electoral reform.

In 2020, St. Louis voters passed Proposition D, the Approval Voting Initiative, into law. In 2021, when they held their local elections, offices including the mayor were contested on a nonpartisan basis through approval voting. Approval voting is something we’ve talked about before here, when we had Benjamin Singer on our podcast. Mr. Singer’s organization, Show Me Integrity, was a major force in passing this initiative.

Our plurality system traditionally supports the development of two competitive parties and, when paired with a primary system, can have a tendency to generate more extreme and polarized politics over time. In 2021, approval voting sought to change this in St. Louis by holding an open, non-partisan first election round. Anyone with enough signatures could run, and voters got to select as many of the candidates as they liked. Then, in a second round, the top two candidates faced off for a majority of votes.

This is an encouraging example of innovative policy-making to address our challenges of polarization and partisan inaction, but unfortunately the state-wide story is very different. Despite its faults, nonpartisan districting is at least better than maps drawn by partisan state legislatures, and in 2018, voters across the state of Missouri passed a constitutional amendment, placed on the ballot through signature-gathering, establishing a nonpartisan redistricting process.

In 2020, however, state legislators put a new amendment on the ballot to overturn that 2018 decision. That effect was hidden below ballot language promising to ban gifts from lobbyists to legislators and lower campaign contribution limits (by 4%, mind you). The amendment passed, and state legislators got their power back.

Unfortunately, state level officials, just like politicians in DC, will generally go to great lengths to secure their positions, even at the expense of democratic health. St. Louis demonstrates, however, that change is possible at the municipal level right now. Of course, in a perfect world, it would be wonderful if we could pass a bill in DC that made our democracy perfect or even just a little better. But it isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, as long as Senators continue to enjoy the cushy coverage provided by the filibuster allowing them to do nothing at all.

If nothing is what we’re looking to get from the national level, then we ought to be trying other avenues. Thankfully some organizations are doing so. Sadly, some bad actors who would like to subvert our democracy are also paying attention to where real power and opportunity lies, running for election board positions across the country, so they might “stop the steal” on behalf on Donald Trump in 2024. For those of us who care about democracy, the failure of this legislation in Congress ought to be wake-up call that bigger fights with greater promise lie elsewhere, that we’re bound to lose as long as we’re staring at the pinstripes.

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