The Results of a Broken System

"Washington Votes," Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress.

“Washington Votes,” Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress.

There were two polling booths at my precinct, neither of which were occupied before I arrived. Inside, I stared blankly at the selection of candidates for a moment before pressing the equivalent of “All Dems.” Outside the air was unusually warm for the first Tuesday after day light savings. I expected more traffic on the rest of my way home from work, but none materialized.

Casting the vote approached the same level of societal communion I get from hearing NPR use Minus the Bear for an interlude in-between segments, and wondering how many other people out there are heading home, listening to the same station, heart beating a little faster as the first twenty seconds of The Game Needed Me pours out over the speakers. The feeling is brief and leaves no discernible trace, except for a lingering sense of having momentarily touched something that transcends the details of from which it is constituted. But “what do we get from this soft transaction?”

Election results are the newsiest thing imaginable in the current media landscape. There’s something tragic in how obsessively the news media reports on the few hours in which the results are still unknown despite the dye having already been cast. It’s hard not to get the sense that many Americans spend more time watching the election night returns than they do any of the coverage leading up to them, coverage which might have actually altered how they eventually decided to vote. But, of course, who can blame them?

A citizen wishing to stay reasonably well informed would miss absolutely nothing by turning off the TV and opening up a dusty copy of Herodotus instead of watching millions of dollars worth of graphics zoom past Wolf Blitzer’s frosty demeanor. The only thing more unsettling then watching a panel of prestigious journalists and political operatives put more thought into their shirt/tie, blouse/jacket combinations than the airy platitudes they are paid to recite for the kids back home.

6th and 7th Pennsylvania Congressional Districts after 2010 redistricting. (Source: Wikipedia).

6th and 7th Pennsylvania Congressional Districts after 2010 redistricting. (Source: Wikipedia).

I’m registered to vote in Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, even though I currently reside in the 6th (having recently moved). Both are a mess due to gerrymandering by Republicans, though I’m sure Democrats would have done the same had they been in control in 2010 instead.

Last night, Republican Pat Meehan was re-elected to Congress from the 7th, having defeated Democratic challenger Mary Ellen Balchunis, while Republican Ryan Costello beat out rival Manan Trivedi for control of the seat held by retiring Congressman Jim Gerlach in the 6th. Both districts have somewhere between 600,000 and 700,000 residents, but in both cases the elections were decided by less than a third of them. Costello had no trouble outspending Trivendi throughout the campaign, especially once the DCCC canceled ad buys in early October. Not to be out done, Meehan outspent Balchunis by more than 5 to 1, finishing the campaign with nearly “$1.84 million on hand” to Balchunis’ $4,436.

But the biggest story of the night in Pennsylvania was “Business Man” Tom Wolf’s win over Republican governor Tom Corbett, the first to lose re-election since the state made it possible for individuals to seek a second term. Wolf spent $10 million of his own money during the campaign, muscling past potentially more experienced and qualified peers in an election year when any number of other (and potentially more liberal) Democrats could have also unseated the extremely unpopular incumbent. Only 3.5 million residents voted for either Wolf or Corbett in a state of over 12 million.

Elias Isquith wrote a short but poignant postmortem of the election last night before all the votes were tallied: How the midterms expose our dying democracy. In it, he cited an article by David Schanzer and Jay Sullivan proposing an end to the midterms. Schanzer and Sullivan’s solution was seen as too radical by man, but Isquith doesn’t think it goes far enough, at least not when “the United States of America, the self-proclaimed oldest democracy in the world, lacks the basics of real self-government: access to the polls for citizens, accountability to the voters from politicians, competition among candidates to discern the people’s will, and real options for those who feel their voices aren’t being heard.”

The United States Senate, the chamber of Congress currently responsible for the gridlock in Washington, is horribly antiquated. It gives outsized influence to smaller, rural states, and the mostly old, white men who control them. Climate change, easily the most pressing issue facing not just this country but the entire world, is both more urgent, and potentially more solvable, than ever. However, the subject went mostly unremarked on by either party this go around.

It’s clear that the American system of governance doesn’t have a place for me in it. My politics does not fit within the narrow paradigm carved out by the two party struggle. The candidates I often have to choose from rarely represent my views adequately, if at all, and the ones who do are barred from participating at the outset, whether constrained by money, misshapen electoral districts, or the apathy of other people my age.

And I am hardly alone in that regard. In fact, I would have been less alone yesterday if I hadn’t even bothered to vote at all.

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61 thoughts on “The Results of a Broken System

    • I came here to drink delicious tears.

      Trotting out the “We have to get rid of the Senate” argument that Democrats have been trotting out every time they lose control of the Senate just makes them sweeter.

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      • I think there are a good number of people to the left of the DNC who find the Senate undesirable. They believe in representing people, not political units. While I don’t fully agree, it’s a fair position.

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      • Perhaps it’s just a consequence of having lived in eight of our Great United States, or now for all intents and purposes living and working in all the lower forty-eight, but it’s difficult for me to see the significance of “this” state vs “that” state as anything other than historical accident.

        It’s not like we’ve welded together the equivalent of the E.U., with their thoroughly independent and sovereign states complete with languages and cultures and hundreds or even thousands of years of history. Apart from the brief period between the War of Independence and the signing of the constitution for the original thirteen, the only states with any reasonable claim to prior independent existence are Texas, Vermont, California, and Hawaii.

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      • Agree. Using district court boundaries would be an interesting alternative. Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana and Idaho would probably be the most upset because those pairs would be overwhelmed by Texas and California respectively.

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      • That would be an alternative, and something to consider if partitioning from scratch, though my own preference is that area not to exceed roughly the equivalent of a day’s drive. Preferably less than that, though in the sparsely populated west that’s not entirely feasible. Montana’s about as big as I would prefer, though there’s no accounting for Alaska.

        Also, if I were to partition into ten spaces without much regard for area, I’d still probably tinker with the district map. Montana in 10, Kansas in 8, etc. That would just be nipping around the edges, though, mostly to try to create more overlap of interests.

        I would probably veer a little bit towards expanding to slightly more states than we have now. Eliminating some, but adding others. But there are a number of ways one can go.

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      • …but it’s difficult for me to see the significance of “this” state vs “that” state as anything other than historical accident.

        Related to this, I always find the notion of the “sovereignty” of the individual states interesting. The first 13, and a couple of others, may have given up some amount of sovereignty, and retained some, when the joined. All the others started as federally-held land with no sovereignty, which were eventually “granted statehood,” as they say. What sovereignty they have was bestowed upon them, not the remnants of something greater that they once held. Having worked for a western legislature, I’ve meet people who believe very strongly that some states were granted more sovereignty than others :^)

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      • , every country except the really small micro-states needs administrative divisions of some sort. You don’t need to give these administrative units semi-sovreigenty though. They could have elected governments carrying out tasks defined by national law with some light taxing powers.

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      • Macro-states need a degree of federalism. It’s more the norm than the exception among the world’s largest democracies. The exceptions tend to be pretty geographically compact. Which, of course, we aren’t.

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  1. If you believe in representing the people, you wouldn’t stop at eliminating the Senate.

    We now have the capability for every citizen to read and vote directly on bills, eliminating the need for “representative democracy”.

    But we don’t do this for the same reasons that we don’t eliminate the Senate.

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  2. I find it bizarre to complain about gerrymandered House districts and then say we should abolish the Senate. Did I miss something?

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  3. “oldest democracy in the world, lacks the basics of real self-government: access to the polls for citizens, accountability to the voters from politicians, competition among candidates to discern the people’s will, and real options for those who feel their voices aren’t being heard.””

    Really now? As much as I dislike the current system, there is indeed accountability to the voters–when they desire it. Colorado’s recalls spring to mind. It’s just that the populace is ambivalent. They want to go vote, if that, and get their goodies, and let someone else make the hard choices. If they don’t like the results, they do nothing, bitch, and wait for the next vote. And they don’t pay attention in the interim. You want to keep your politician accountable….you ride his ass every day and make sure he tows the line. That takes effort, consistency, and a long term outlook.

    Now, that being said, we got here because of the people we elected: politicians-ambitious, self absorbed, power hungry folks. And you’ll stay there until their power is reduced or the electorate gets off their asses and does something. Of course, if the gov’t didn’t have as much power and influence of everyone’s lives, no one would give a damn would they? So there’s that.

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      • Iceland’s democracy was actually founded by Vikings in the Thing Fields during the age of the Sagas.

        That may be the coolest sentence I’ve ever written.

        By the way, if you haven’t read the Sagas, you can read them here for free in Icelandic, Old Norse, or English. I suggest Old Norse, because even if you don’t know what it’s saying, you can read it in a Viking voice:

        Úlfr hét maðr, sonr Bjálfa ok Hallberu, dóttur Úlfs ins óarga. Hon var systir Hallbjarnar hálftrölls í Hrafnistu, föður Ketils hængs. Úlfr var maðr svá mikill ok sterkr, at eigi váru hans jafningjar. En er hann var á unga aldri, lá hann í víkingu ok herjaði. Með honum var í félagsskap sá maðr, er kallaðr var Berðlu-Kári, göfugr maðr ok inn mesti afreksmaðr at afli ok áræði. Hann var berserkr. Þeir Úlfr áttu einn sjóð báðir, ok var með þeim in kærsta vinátta.

        Seriously, though, they’re pretty cool.

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  4. The Senate is not really the reason the legislative system(1) is broken. The actual problem is that the House is operated by a bunch of crazies, and the presidency isn’t. As long as the Senate is somewhere between those two points, it’s not the problem.

    If the Senate being broken was the cause of the problem, that would have just fixed itself, probably. I guess it’s possible the Democrats could start fillibustering things (Not that the Republicans would put up with that for long), but I suspect they won’t.

    I suspect, instead, the Republicans in the House and the Republicans in the Senate usually will work together to come up with slightly less crazy bills, and the president will probably veto them. This will happen between Republican meltdowns and in-fighting and paranoid delusions.

    That isn’t to say the Senate is *useful*. There’s almost no real reason to have two legislative chambers at all, especially not with yet another entity having veto power. It’s absurd.

    It’s just not the problem currently.

    1) The confirmation system brokenness, OTOH, is entirely due to the Senate.

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    • There’s no reason for states to have two houses, but at the national level that’s the only way to address the different voting blocs (people vs states). Some those blocks don’t (and can’t) exist at the local level, Nebraska has it right.

      Unless a state wanted to try single member districts for one house, but proportional representation for the other. Which I would like to see tried somewhere.

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      • That makes me think of the amusing maps now being passed around showing “How much of the country voted Republican”. I don’t think many people realize how empty much of the US is, and how dense other areas are.

        I tend to prefer the ones where the map is distorted (or made three-dimensional) to indicate the population voting. (The ones that do that AND shade it to a purple color to indicate the actual results are even better, if hard to read).

        I mean it’s nice to see an entire state go red, but it’s a pretty useful piece of information to note that the population of that state is substantially smaller then a pair of House districts elsewhere that voted the other way.

        Deep in many people’s heads is the implied belief that America’s population is distributed pretty evenly. Not like a ‘false belief’ — just sort of the assumption. Bigger = more, you know? False upon an instant’s reflection, but people staring at results maps rarely actually reflect on that base assumption.

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      • I don’t think many people realize how empty much of the US is…

        That is probably because central planning types keep trying to sell us on density, force us out of cars and homes, and into brutalist-inspired apartment blocs and commie monorail systems.

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      • I tend to prefer the maps that actually show me where the red and blue parts actually are, in relationship to the map I actually see.

        Yeah, some people take the map the wrong way, in immediate assumption or deliberately, but that’s easy enough to correct and can make the population-contorted maps a useful supplement for anyone confused.

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      • Well, that’s assuming people think that states should have any special political power.

        But, as far as voting, Australia has single transferable vote for their Senate and IRV for their House.

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      • Unless a state wanted to try single member districts for one house, but proportional representation for the other. Which I would like to see tried somewhere.

        Maybe I’m misunderstanding? No part of a state legislature can have districts that don’t meet an equal-population standard. Reynolds v. Sims settled that back in 1964.

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      • That is probably because central planning types keep trying to sell us on density, force us out of cars and homes, and into brutalist-inspired apartment blocs and commie monorail systems.

        Did I miss a smiley? In the really large, empty parts of the US — from the Great Plains west — most of it has been dictated by where there were harbors, water, feasible transportation routes, and places flat enough to build on reasonably. Also federal land ownership putting 40% or so off limits, but most of that fails at least one of those other criteria anyway. Eg, this map.

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      • Proportional representation is not at all mutually exclusive with equal representation. You just have to have districts of equal size (and the intent cannot be to disenfranchise certain voters, which if anything PR does the opposite).

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      • So long as “size” in your 2:07 means “population”. You can slice and dice in a lot of other ways, but districts that aren’t periodically redrawn to provide equal population (I believe the phrase is “as nearly equal of population as is practicable”) are forbidden. Period, end-of-discussion, absent a new SCOTUS decision overturning Reynolds v. Sims. Even Colorado’s rural-power advocates add the qualifier “…as soon as we get a new Supreme Court decision” when they talk about new districting schemes.

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      • Yeah, I meant size as in population. The districts would be redrawn each census like any other state district. The only difference is that it would be proportional representation instead of single-member districts.

        My view is that bicameralism doesn’t accomplish much of significance unless there are significant differences between the two. So I think most state upper houses are superfluous since they are, by Constitutional necessity, they can’t represent any way other than by population. Bicameralism does become justified, however, if you use the second house to represent points of view that aren’t represented in single-member districts (namely, Democrats in a Republican district or vice-versa)..

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      • Unless a state wanted to try single member districts for one house, but proportional representation for the other. Which I would like to see tried somewhere.

        What I’d like to see is a hybrid system. Instead of two houses, let’s put them all in one house, but elect different parts in different ways.

        What would happen if, for a random example, we elected the house and senate like we do now, but stuck them in the same body? (And might want to change Senate terms to 2 years while we’re at it.) Granted, those aren’t the same size, but that actually *fixes* the problem that small states have way too much of a say…and the small states still have a floor of three elected members.

        Or, back to the state legislature, what if they were divided into districts (Via some fair computer, not the nonsense we have now), but people *also* voted for a party that fielded a list of candidates, and those candidates were placed in proportionally(1), and it was all in the same body, so the state would have have 30 districts, and 30 proportionals. Or maybe 60 districts and 30 proportionals, or vis versa, I don’t know.

        I’m all for having different forms of representation, what baffles me is putting them in different *bodies*, which makes the entire process much more complicated than it should be.

        1) I used to often propose we set up the house where no one’s ‘elected’…all members just have proxy votes of everyone who voted for them. Technically, you could vote for yourself and make yourself a member of congress, casting exactly one vote. (However, you can only physically occupy space on the floor if you have at least 200,000 votes behind you. And you can only vote in the capital building…we’d set up some other rooms that ‘tiny members’ can vote in. After the election, if someone didn’t hit the 200,000 mark, they could hand their proxies over to someone else.)

        This makes voting and haggling for votes strangely complicated, some members could have a dozen more votes than other members, but also makes it where every single person’s vote counts. As in, literally, every time your member of congress casts a vote, he votes 244,294 times, and you know that ‘4’ is because you voted, and otherwise it would be a 3. I suspect this would *greatly* increase voter turnout.

        However, while we are unlikely to do this, some countries have systems that sorta mimic this, where you vote for a party, and if the party gets 10% of the vote, they get to fill 10% of the seats. Like I said above, I like that idea.

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      • David, I get what you’re saying about one-house-two-mechanism, and it’s possible a state could be convinced to go forward with that, but the detrimental effect that a unicameral legislature would have on the lowpop states would make that a no-go. I mean, any attempts to recalibrate legislative representation are probably a no-go, but in this case it would be almost as much of a no-go as abolishing the senate outright for all of the influence it will leave lowpop states with.

        Which, of course, a lot of people think is the way it should be. But it’s impossible all the same, and would even be a hard sell in the Cain WSA (western eleven breaking off and forming their own country) scenario where a constitution was being written from scratch.

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      • I mean, any attempts to recalibrate legislative representation are probably a no-go, but in this case it would be almost as much of a no-go as abolishing the senate outright for all of the influence it will leave lowpop states with.

        Well, yes, because it actually is abolishing the Senate outright. ;) It’s just the states a tiny counter-weight in the House.

        Incidentally, when I first proposed this, I was thinking such an amendment it would need the consent of all the states…but that actually can be worked around.

        You can’t make an amendment that lowers a state’s representation in the Senate without the consent of the state. But what you could do is amend the legislative process to ‘The House makes bills, the president signs them’, which doesn’t *technically* reduce a state’s representation in the Senate…it just renders the Senate pointless. This is the traditional manner of getting rid of an upper house…just give them very little to do. Or we could leave them with some powers, like advise and consent, and a war veto, or something. Or something like the House of Lords, just let them stall legislation for a bit.

        As for the House(1), adding a bunch of representatives on a per-state basis would deprive some states of their sufferage, but it turns out you actually *can* do that via amendment. I understand why they did that, because states lose representatives all the time, but they could have said ‘You get to pick the total number, but you cannot amend the rules’. This seems a very dangerous oversight, what’s to stop 40 states from getting together and passing an amendment basically throwing ten other states out of House?

        However, you’re right in that the smaller states would not go for reducing the power of the Senate, much removing all power.

        1) Another oddity of our constitution. Why do we have a ‘Senate’ and a ‘House of Representives’? I don’t mean why do they exist, I mean why on earth are they named in that manner? Why not a House of Representives and a House of States? Or a Senate and a Representate, or something? It’s like someone said ‘Hey, let’s name out legislative body after Rome’s!’ and everyone nodded, then later when they decided they needed another, they just picked an unrelated name.

        Also, is Ancient Rome really the best example of democracy we could think of? How about we go with our government architecture and try *Ancient Greece*? Let’s call them a Council and an Assembly.

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      • Yep. Ironically, it is easier to abolish the senate (or its authority) than it is to reform it. The only reason I say “slightly less likely” is because theoretically you could use the threat of abolishing the senate as leverage to get the smaller states to agree to reform it.

        There’s one major problem with doing either thing, though. It’s not just the small states that benefit from the senate. It’s 2/3 of them.

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    • There’s almost no real reason to have two legislative chambers at all, especially not with yet another entity having veto power.

      Of course there is: It makes it harder to pass new legislation without a broad consensus. Four vetoes are better than three.

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    • We really would have to implement Will’s notion of having it meet out in the middle of Nebraska :^) Call it 32,000 members. Figure a 5:1 ratio for staff, then add in all of the support that a small city needs (plumbers, teachers, grocery-store workers, etc, etc)… might not be bigger than Omaha proper (just over 400,000 people), but it could be.

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    • Heh, I just got notification that my conference paper proposal on this topic was accepted.

      My co-author and I are not proposing a 30,000 seat house, though.

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      • Do you have a target number? I picked that not based on US population, and how many seats would result, but based on the number of people it seemed reasonable to have the representative have at least some relationship with; people in common, communities in common.

        I would also see the house be big enough that purchasing influence through donation would be highly diluted.

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      • We’re looking to fix a growing problem of malapportionment caused by the U.S. population tripling since the last time the House was increased. The essential problem is that the average District size is now about 1/3 larger than the smallest District size, in a chamber that’s designed for equal representation of the population.

        We’re going to look at other legislatures and try to get a handle on a good ratio of reps to citizens that balances representation and functionality (30,000 is unlikely to be functional–your committees will have 1,000 members) that we can use as a starting base to propose a good number to expand to to ensure the smallest states aren’t disproportionately represented and an expected appropriate growth rate over the next century based on population growth estimates.

        We haven’t actually done that part of the research yet, so I don’t know what our numbers will be.

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