Fixing Elections

boothIn a curiously unmotivated piece at the Washington Post, Anne Lowrey asks: “What if senators represented people by income or race, not by state?”.

I can’t figure out her point. I am all for identifying problems and brainstorming about radical solutions, but I have no idea what problem Lowrey thinks she’s addressing.

The primary problem with representative democracy is that our representatives are captured by special interests. My senators plot to steal from you and your senators plot to steal from me, with a lot of collateral damage along the way. (And yes, you and your neighbors do constitute a special interest, as do I and mine.) The problem is exacerbated by the fact that my neighbors and I have a lot of interests in common, making it easier to steal on all our behalves at the same time. The solution is to make each senator’s constituency more diverse, not, as Lowrey proposes, less.

In my book More Sex is Safer Sex, I offered a few ideas along these lines, culled from the past few years of lunch table chat:

  • Divide senatorial constituencies according to the alphabet, so that instead of a senator from Alaska and a senator from Wisconsin, we’ll have a senator for everyone whose last name begins with AA through AE. The point being that it’s easy to think up earmarks and pork barrel projects that will benefit the citizens of Alaska at everyone else’s expense, but not so easy to think up pork barrel projects that will benefit everyone whose last name happens to begin with Q.
  • Give each voter two votes to cast in every senatorial election. You get one vote to cast in your own state and one to cast in the state of your choice.

    Again, this forces senators to answer to broader and more diverse constituencies, diluting the power of localized special interests.

  • This one’s not in the book but should have been: Give each senator a personal budget so that once he;s voted for $X billion worth of spending, he’s not allowed to vote for any more spending until he gets re-elected. This pits his various sub-constituencies against each other, so that the New York Senator who lobbies for subsidies to New York City is sure to get a negative earful from upstate.

Am I serious? Of course I’m serious. I’m serious about the importance of identifying deep problems, calling attention to them, and thinking outside the box. That’s why I was thrilled recently to run Jamie Whyte’s guest post, proposing a novel and thought-provoking solution to another problem with democracy, namely: Voters with little impact on the outcome have little incentive to become well informed.

What are your best proposals for political reform—and what problem do they address?

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24 Responses to “Fixing Elections”


  1. 1 1 dave

    i believe that all civil service positions should be filled in the same way that jury duty is. jamie suggests culling the electorate to 12 by random selection. why not do away with the electorate all together and simply select the office holder by random? like jury duty, someone could opt out of their civil service if they had a good reason to. im a firm believer that a leader selected at random is as good as one that has won a popularity contest.

  2. 2 2 Mike

    I think one legislative proposal would be to have Congress vote on a fixed budget at the beginning of each year (require a supermajority to vote on additional spending) then do this recursively for each department, this would help to end special interest logrolling (it could be planned at the beginning of the year but that would be more difficult.

  3. 3 3 ryan yin

    Dr. Landsburg,
    Don’t your first two proposals make the problem Whyte pointed to worse? (Though of course solving that problem wasn’t your goal)

  4. 4 4 Al V.

    @dave, Kurt Vonnegut thought of the random president in one of his books, although I forget which. My recollection is that in the book in question, the president is “a housewife from Bakersfield, California”.

    Steve, I think the challenge is that, as articiles such as this one http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=324039 note, Americans are increasing mobile and self selecting geographically. Thus, areas like Austin, Texas or Cambridge, Mass. become increasing liberal, while cities such as Wichita, Kansas or Greenville, SC, become increasing conservative. This creates a challenge of representation for many people whose views don’t align with the majority in their home.

    For example, I am a New Yorker transplanted to Greenville. Politically, I am a social liberal (pro-choice, pro-gay marriage), but a fiscal conservative. In New York I generally voted with the moderate Republicans, but in a place like Greenville there is nowhere to go. The Republican party here is largely controlled by evangelicals, and the Democrats never get anyone elected. Thus, my vote is usually wasted in local and state elections.

    Furthermore, I work for a New York based company, and travel often to New York. My parents also live in New York. Thus, from a national perspective my interests are as often controlled by New York politics, but I have no say in elections in either state – albeit for different reasons.

    So the question is, why should elections be determined by geography? Our interests often align to things other than geography, such as employment or medical care status. It seems in this modern age, there may be better ways of staging elections that would make them more representative, and I feel we don’t need to have both houses of congress determined by geography.

    Mu thought is to leave the House as is, a geographically elected body, but have the Senate be an open election. Every two years 33 or 34 seats are up for election, so why not have an open election? Hundreds of people could run nationally, and every voter would get one vote. The top 33 or 34 vote getters would be elected. Probably the top 20 or so Senators would get reelected every term, but the bottom few would turn over every year. Furthermore, the Senate would become more representative of the citizenry as a whole, as voters could coalesce around particular minority candidates. The Socialists, the Greens, the Libertarians could also get a few candidates elected.

  5. 5 5 James D. Miller

    Every decade or so we should have a national vote on whether all members of the House of Reps should be fired. If, say, 60% vote yes then every current member will be prohibited from running for reelection.

  6. 6 6 bart.mitchell

    Ok, I absolutely love dividing senator positions by alphabet. That smacks of brilliance. I’m of the opinion that we need some sort of radical change at this point. The entire system of politics has become far too stable for stepwise change.

    I still prefer my system, where the only vote anyone gets is for their neighborhood representative. The only way you can work in city government is to be elected by a neighborhood rep, the only way to work in county is to be elected by a city rep, county to state, state to fed. In that system, the only people who can get into politics are those who are respected by their neighbors and their peers all the way up.

  7. 7 7 Snorri Godhi

    Arnold Kling wrote a blog post, last month I believe, about his ideas for a radical decentralization of US government. At the risk of misrepresenting him, the idea was to turn the USA into a big Switzerland with lots of small cantons. I like that, at least as a thought experiment.

    A couple of ideas of my own. But first, what problem do I want to solve. Call me a pessimist, but it seems to me that, in human history, governments tend to get bigger and bigger until the State collapses. By “getting bigger and bigger” I mean consuming an ever larger percentage of GDP (even when the GDP is itself increasing) and interfering more and more in the lives of the people.

    Maybe I am wrong, but my guess is that part of the problem is the accumulation of laws. People in Congress/Parliament get more credit for passing new laws than for abrogating laws. So here is my first idea: the Upper Chamber (Senate in the US) should be constitutionally limited to the abrogation of laws. They should be prevented from coming up with their version of a bill: they can reject the version of the Lower Chamber, but cannot recommend improvements. Also, of course, they can abrogate the bill any time after it has passed into law.

    Another solution that has been tried and found wanting is a Constitution which lists enumerated powers. The problem, as I understand, is that these powers have been interpreted in an increasingly broad sense by the US Supreme Court. So here is another idea: restrain the Supreme Court use of its own precedent, ie the Supreme Court should not refer to its previous decisions when making a new decision; it should refer only to the Constitution. (If this second idea seems silly, that is probably because I am not trained in jurisprudence.)

  8. 8 8 solarjetman

    A couple of brainstorms I’ve had along these lines:

    1. There are two major legislative systems: a bicameral legislature in which representatives are elected directly from geographical areas, and a unicameral parliament in which individuals vote for parties and the parties receive a number of seats in parliament proportional to their vote. This sacrifices the direct representation of particular geographic interest, but allows third and fourth parties to wield power. Why not combine the two; instead of electing 100 senators directly from 50 states, use a parliamentary system to comprise the senate (keeping an elected president as chief executive). This would allow geographic representation in one house, and third party representation in the other.

    2. Two-tiered electoral system. Right now every member of the House represents, on average, on the order of 500,000 people. This is a large enough scale that mass media is the key to victory; mass media campaigning costs money, and the need for money leads to corruption.

    Instead, divide each house district into 99 subdistricts of around 5,000 people apiece. Voters in these district vote for electors. Those electors then vote amongst themselves to elect representatives to Congress. The process of choosing electors would be necessarily grass roots and neighborhood-oriented, and it would probably be aided by internet participation as well. The electors could themselves get together and play congress; they wouldn’t have any direct power, but if they voted 75-24 in favor of a particular bill, the actual Congressman representing them would have a hard time justifying a vote against it.

    All of this is pie in the sky anyway; any change to the electoral system results in some faction losing power, and that faction will fight hard to keep what it has. Our electoral system isn’t going anywhere. But it’s fun to theorize.

  9. 9 9 dullgeek

    I stole this from a friend, whom I believe stole it from a book. I think the book was “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”.

    Anyway the idea is this: Require a 2/3rds super-majority to enact any law. But require much less – a simple majority, or even minority (1/3rd or 40%) to repeal a law.

    The idea being: Most everyone had better be damn certain that the law is a good idea. And if it turns out to be a bad idea it doesn’t take many to get it repealed.

  10. 10 10 Aaron

    Instead of only getting a single vote, voters should be able to rank all the candidates in order of preference. Once all votes are loaded into a central computer, an overall winner could be determined as the net winner of a head-to-head tournament bracket, a-la the NCAA tournament. This would be logistically challenging and politically impossible, but here are the benefits:

    * Extremist candidates would lose. The winner would be a centrist candidate with capable skills whose politics reflect his/her represented population.

    * Third-party candidates would not be “stealing” votes from a major party. Under the current system, the Ross Perots, Ralph Naders, and Ron Pauls of world end up actually hurting the those that they most similarly resemble.

    * Small, special interest groups would have less power, because politicians would need to appeal not just to a “party base” but to everyone.

    * Things might actually get done. As the representative bodies became more centrist, politicians might actually agree on things.

    I’m curious to hear what you think of this plan.

  11. 11 11 Michael

    I belong to an election methods mailing list — in case anyone’s interested, http://wiki.electorama.com/wiki/Election-methods_mailing_list — and I like Condorcet methods for single-rep districts (like the head-to-head contest you mentioned, Aaron — there is actually a movement to promote the name “Instant Round Robin” to compete with Instant Runoff on bumper stickers). For proportional legislatures, I like a type of proxy voting, where each representative’s power is proportional to the number of first place votes received.

    One area that tends to be overlooked is using unicameral legislatures or mixed methods. You can have a single representative with two or more types of voting power — he could be the Condorcet winner for a state, and he could also have a certain number of proxy votes, for example. The legislature might need a majority of states and a majority of proxy votes to pass a bill. You wouldn’t need two houses of Congress, just give each member of Congress two (or more) different types of voting power, depending on what criteria you want.

    Under such a system, legislators would be encouraged to appeal to people from outside their state, because it would increase their proxy power, but they would also want to make sure their state was happy, since they could easily lose their seat. (Lots of voting possibilities to play with, too.) It would also weaken party politics, since reps would be in direct competition for one group of votes at all times.

  12. 12 12 bart.mitchell

    Michael, do you think the two party system is too established to allow any weakening of their hold? It seems that any attempt to weaken the established two party system is going to meet very stiff resistance.

  13. 13 13 Neil

    Forgive the complete OT, but readers of The Big Questions might like this.

    http://abstrusegoose.com/244

  14. 14 14 daryn

    1) Does this imply that we should elect representatives at-large? Maybe everyone gets 10 votes and the top 100 vote-getters get to be in the Senate or something like that.

  15. 15 15 Philip

    One of the most remarkable and least recognized aspects of American democracy is the periodic creation and destruction of political parties.

    The parties are always evolving to some degree, but every 50 years or so one of them goes out of business or is remade. This is disquised by the fact the two parties’ names are appropriated by the new parties that take their place. These new parties are formed out remnants of the old one, along with other elements of the electorate unaffiliated (or loosely so) with the competing party.

    The first party to disappear was the Federalist, done-in by reaction to the Alien and Sedition Act, the rapid democratization of American politics and culture, and the Jeffersonian Democrats.

    Elements of the Federalists formed the Whig party. They struggled with little success against the Jefferson-Jackson Democrats until the Republicans put them out of business.

    The Civil War destroyed the original Democratic Party, leaving the former Southern slaveocracy to carry the name. Still called “Democrat”, nevertheless it was a very different animal.

    The GOP evolved from the party of Lincoln into the party of big business, with an short interegnum when they nominated TR as VP as a sop to their Progressive minority then watched in horror as he became President with McKinley’s assasination.

    The Great Depression and FDR created a new Democratic Party, and Reagan did much the same for the GOP 45 years later.

    That’s 6 in 220 years.

  16. 16 16 Pete

    One idea I had as a kid was too select all representatives at random. You’d certainly have to be mentally able, but I am certain that one does not need to be especially bright to serve in Congress. Besides, they’d still have aides. Once they are up with their terms, they go home and never return. If we ran qualifying background checks on all of them, the pool remaining would probably be better than the current set of office holders.

  17. 17 17 Cos

    You have a peculiar way of interpreting that oped piece, almost as if you think the writer is attempting to be you, doing a thing you would do, but doing it badly :)

    To me, the point of the piece is pretty clear, and it’s not “here’s my radical solution to our problem”. Rather, it’s simply a way to get people to think about how the Senate works now, and positing some mental excercises that show it in contrast. I think it makes its point reasonably, and that point is to help explain what is happening.

  18. 18 18 andy weintraub

    With respect to members of congress: There are probably lots of reasons to have some regional representation, but what can we do about gerrymandering, which distorts that to some degree?

    Is there some way to design districts mathematically so that each district minimizes the amount of land required for whatever the number of constituents reside in each congressional district? Shouldn’t that eliminate, or at least improve, the weird shapes that now show themselves as congressional districts?

  19. 19 19 andy weintraub

    Actually, just thinking about my post at 8:10 PM:

    I guess we don’t want to minimize the amount of land required, since that can also result in funny shaped districts, i.e. a district 100 yards wide and miles and miles long. Perhaps we could impose a rectangular shape with a given ratio of length to width? Would something like that work?

  20. 20 20 tim moseid

    I see the main problem with our politicians is the lack of personal accountability. Sure they may not be reelected, however often they find it a price worth paying.

    I would hold congress members responsible for their votes on the order of the following:

    Every law would have a stated outcome with a defined measurement of success. All who voted for the law would incur a significant financial penalty as long as the law was in force without meeting its stated goal.

  21. 21 21 Michael

    Andy Weintraub, did I mention I belong to an election methods list? :)

    Here are some starting points for automated congressional redistricting (some links to other pages on the bottom, but there are example maps on the page itself):

    http://bolson.org/dist/ (nice pictures)
    http://rangevoting.org/SplitLR.html (a version called splitline districting)

    My personal preference would be having congressional districts that were “centroidal voronoi tessellations” of equal population (if you do a Google search for “centroidal voronoi” you will see what I mean). However, a practical, low-tech way to get good districts would be to allow each major party (and any group that had enough signatures on a petition) to offer a districting map, and then have people vote for the one they wanted. I think most people would instinctively choose one that is more visually compact and less gerrymandered.

  22. 22 22 Philip

    Michael-

    These are good ideas.

    The Steve’s alphabet option is intersting but has a significant downside: it nationalizes elections in every district. Every candidate would have to advertise and campaign across the country to reach every voter in her alphabet district. This would be far more expensive than local campaigns in individual districts or states, greatly increasing the power of money. All other options that ignore geography face the same problem.

    There are many redistricting techniques used today to protect incumbents or benefit one party or the other, too many to mention. Overcoming these devices is straightforward if redistricting is taken away from state legislatures and given to independent commissions constrained by requirements to make districts of equal population and compact, with boundaries following natural geographic and administrative boundaries, and prohibiting gerrymandering.

    Steve is correct that the goal should be to increase diversity and the competitiveness of districts.

  23. 23 23 Jeffrey

    Let’s start small, with this tweak to 1:

    Divide congressional districts within a state based on birthdays. I like this better than the last name division, because it can’t be legally changed and because last names starting with X and Z are disproportionately Asian, as well as other more subtle skewing. It solves the problem of upstate New York v. NYC. It doesn’t solve the problem of Texas v. New York.

    It’s no secret that the House is vastly more polarized than the Senate. This moves the House up to the level of the Senate. A small step, yes, but it happens through a realistic rule change.

    It doesn’t require changing the Constitution (unlike 1), it doesn’t require cooperation among all 50 states to get started (unlike 2), and it doesn’t require massive procedural changes impacting more than special interests (unlike 3.)

    While it’s not a comprehensive reform, I can see it actually happening. Even if only 10 states did it, that would be progress. There’s something to be said for wild ideas. There’s also something to be said for trying to figure out ways to make the brilliance not seem wild, even at the expense of dampening the brilliance.

  24. 24 24 Steve Landsburg

    Jeffrey: I like it.

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