System Errors

by by William Tomasko

illustration by by becca levinson

American democracy is still a work in progress. Granted, if the be-britched framers of the Constitution had had it their way, only one of three federal institutions, the House of Representatives, would be elected democratically by the people. And even though today the public is privileged to vote for senators and presidents, too, our government could still better honor the will of its citizens.
Lofty idealism this is not. There are some means by which we can reform the system in ways that would let our government more effectively reflect public opinion, that essential tenet of functioning democracy. Here, in troubleshooting form, are a few pragmatic solutions to several of our most pressing current problems. They would certainly disrupt the status quo, but to quote Thomas Jefferson, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.”

Problem: Productivity—Our federal government is unusually slow to enact major legislation.

Healthcare reform is an obvious manifestation of government’s bias in favor of inaction. Presidents throughout the 20th century, from Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, have aimed to create universal access with little success. We are the only Western industrialized nation to have not already implemented a universal policy. The framers designed checks, balances, and veto points to prevent government from acting too rashly, but those obstacles (and an extra-constitutional Senate quirk described below) may excessively hinder the formation of policy.

Solution: Eliminate—or weaken—the filibuster in the Senate.

Senate Rule XXII, which the Senate established by itself, demands that 60 senators need to agree on “cloture” before the body can stop debating a bill and begin to vote on it. Senators can “filibuster,” or prevent a vote from taking place, by getting together a minority of 41 senators to vote against cloture.
While the tactic was only used 16 times throughout the 19th century, nowadays virtually every bill requires a supermajority of 60 votes to pass. This exacerbates the already-undemocratic nature of the Senate (which represents states, not people) by giving senators representing only around 10 percent of the population the potential power to veto any bill.
Currently, even though a strong majority of Americans (57 percent in a Washington Post-ABC News poll from mid-October) appears to want the government to create a limited public alternative to private health insurance, the plan might not survive the Senate because of the onerous 60-vote requirement. Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) is pledging to filibuster the healthcare bill because of its public option.
To overcome this extra-constitutional hindrance, we can look to the Lieberman of 1994. Then, he said it was unfair for a minority of senators to block major bills from moving through Congress with the filibuster. He (and Tom Harkin, a Democratic senator from Iowa) suggested that the filibuster should only be able to be used to delay, by a maximum of eight days, voting on legislation. And, because the Senate created Rule XXII, the Senate can change it all by itself, eliminating this undemocratic obstructionism and allowing for a more productive government.

Problem: Representation—Our members of Congress aren’t terribly representative of Americans and their interests.

According to the Census Bureau’s 2007 estimate, Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans comprise, respectively, approximately 16 percent, 13 percent, and five percent of the United States population. In Congress, about six percent of members are Latino, eight percent are black, and two percent are Asian-American. Only 18 percent of members of Congress are women even though roughly 51 percent of Americans are women. Minorities and women often report reluctance to run for office because of the challenge of fundraising.

Solution: Adopt a federal, voluntary public financing system.

Maine, Arizona, and Connecticut have already adopted voluntary systems to let their state governments subsidize the campaigns of candidates who don’t want to spend vast amounts of their time raising money.
Optional public financing allows individuals who might be deterred by the high costs of political campaigns to consider serving in government, including minorities and women. 220 percent more Latinos ran for office in Arizona after its public financing began, and 65 percent of them used public financing. Ten percent more women ran for office in both states, with 42 percent of female candidates in Maine and 80 percent in Arizona saying they would not have run without the public financing option, according to data collected by Rhode Islanders for Fair Elections, which lobbies for the implementation of a representative system in Rhode Island (Full disclosure: This writer is a member of RIFE’s campus advocacy group Democracy Matters).
On a national level, we already have a public financing system for presidential elections. However, Common Cause, a national advocacy group that supports greater governmental accountability to non-well-heeled citizens, insists that the current program needs to be more attractive to presidential candidates (Obama declined it, and both Bush and John Kerry raised their own money during the 2004 primaries).
Common Cause also calls for blended small contributions and public grants to be an option for funding Congressional campaigns.

Problem: Legitimacy—It is too likely that someone could get elected president even if most voters did not want him or her to win.

In one out of every seven elections in which the popular vote winner won by less than 55 percent of the vote, the popular vote loser still triumphed in the Electoral College. In five out of the past 12 elections, shifts of a few thousand voters in one or two states would have allowed the minority-winning candidate to prevail.

Solution: Elect presidents using a national popular vote.

A national advocacy organization, National Popular Vote Inc., has formulated a plan to elect presidents by popular vote that does not even require a constitutional amendment. One by one, states can formally agree that they will give their electoral votes to the popular vote winner. The compact would kick in once enough states (with all of their electoral votes adding up to 270, an Electoral College majority) adopt the measure. Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii, and Washington have already signed on—their electoral votes add up to 61.
Opponents claim the proposal would limit the influence of individual states’ interests. However, the national popular vote would only strengthen them by making every state’s needs, not just battleground states’, relevant to presidential candidates.
Naysayers insist the new setup would encourage candidates to only campaign in the most populated states and cities, leaving rural regions unattended. However, neither a Republican nor a Democratic presidential candidate could triumph by only winning the biggest states because of how politically polarized those states can be. No state or region could be ignored because the margin of victory in every area would count towards the national total margin.
Most importantly, every voter could wield equal influence with a national popular vote plan. Grassroots activism would be equally worthwhile in every American neighborhood, town, and state. Presidencies would consistently enjoy nation-wide legitimacy and popular mandates. Democracy would be more than a rhetorical promise.