So we just had an election, and if you’re like most people, you didn’t enjoy it.
According to ballotpedia.org, Republicans outpolled Democrats in House races by about 49% to 48% in 2016, but wound up with 241 seats out of 435, a very solid majority; for the past decade or more, Democrats have tended to outpoll Republicans in House races nationally, but because of Republican-dominated redistricting, Republicans have tended to win majorities in the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, the winner of the presidential election won the popular vote by negative 2.8 million. It was the largest popular vote loss ever by a presidential winner, but it was the second time in the past five elections that the winner lost the popular vote, or to put it another way, it was the second time in the past five elections that the first choice of voters was passed over by the electoral college. It was also the fourth time in the past seven that the winner did not secure a majority of the popular vote.
It was also an election in which significant groups were motivated, or I might say manipulated, by a single issue: the unfilled seat on the Supreme Court. When Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly in early 2016, President Barack Obama (who, by the way, won popular vote majorities in both his runs for the White House) nominated Judge Merrick Garland as his replacement. In an unprecedented move, Senate Republicans refused to even hold hearings for Garland, whom many of them had voted for when he was nominated to the federal bench by Bill Clinton. The result of this unusual move was an increase in motivation for conservatives who were understandably iffy about Donald Trump (no one believes he really has pro-life convictions, for instance) and for left-wingers who might have thought Hillary Clinton insufficiently radical.
And that, children, is why we elected a man who is a documented liar, adulterer, swindler and general policy dope, not to mention possible Russian stooge, as our 45th President.
Now if you voted for him, or if you are in the “give the guy a chance” camp, please hold your fire for a moment. Imagine the same thing had happened—backwards. And it might have. A Bernie Sanders candidacy might have played well in some of the small rural states, and the result might have been a Sanders electoral college win and popular vote loss. And the Scalia effect would also have been reversed: the moderate Garland would have returned to his federal judgeship, replaced by a younger, more left-wing nominee whom the Senate would have had to consider (assuming that even Mitch McConnell would balk at leaving seats vacant for an entire term).
If you don’t get it yet, consider this: we have finally elected a candidate who has never released his federal tax returns, and we’ve elected a candidate who refuses to comply with conflict of interest standards, and we’ve done so because pro-life conservatives felt they had no other choice. The President-Elect is thinking about how many White House silver spoons he can pocket and how much foreign-leader business he can guide to his hotels, and all conservatives get in return is the possibility that he may give them a nominee they’ll like for one seat on the Supreme Court. Politics has finally outrun our demand for honesty, transparency, and accountability.
So what to do about the way in which our political system is coming apart at the seams? What to do, to stop the rapidly accelerating spin of our founding fathers and mothers in their graves, to put the ghosts of Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin (and Elizabeth Cady Stanton) at rest about the partisan horror show that is our government?
I give you your goals for the next two or three decades. Think of them as achievements to be won in a video game, but the bonus is: you get to save the country and possibly the world.
- Abolish the electoral college. The arguments have been rehashed and rehashed. Suffice it to say: the Electoral College was not a magic formula come up with by the founders after prayer and meditation; it was a compromise to get Delaware and New Jersey to agree to give up their otherwise worthless sovereignty under the Articles of Confederation. People who think the framers of the constitution had some kind of divine inspiration should have their heads examined by reputable psychiatrists. Any argument in favor of keeping the damn thing must be weighed against this: what do you gain in return for allowing someone who did not win the most votes of actual voters to win the office of President of the United States? Say that a couple of times to yourself. Clinton won by 2.8 million. What do you gain for trading away the idea of the person with the most votes winning?
It’s worth comparing the Electoral College, as an artifact of Constitutional Convention compromise, with that other great concession to reality of the Founders: the 3/5 count of slaves for census purposes. No one now defends that compromise—which not only endorsed the continuation of slavery on American soil, but went so far as to count the non-voting enslaved population (at a 40% discount) as if they were voters of the states they were enslaved in. That provision existed only because it was seen as necessary to get the Constitution approved; pretty much everyone in the North, and many in the South, were holding their noses as they voted for it. No one now thinks it was divinely inspired. Why then do we feel the same way about the Electoral College?
- Redistrict by a mathematical algorithm. A second-semester first-year computer programming student could write an algorithm that would redistrict without gerrymandering. Gerrymandering (named for Elbridge Gerry, early 19th-Century governor of Massachusetts) is, to put it bluntly, the assumption that in large states, the party that wins state legislative elections in years divisible by ten gets to draw district lines for state legislature and the US House of Representatives to give itself as many extra seats as possible. It’s why Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, to name three Democratic-leaning states with Republican legislative majorities, send more Republicans to Congress than Democrats. After an unusual 2003 redistricting in Texas, the state’s congressional delegation went from 17-15 Democrat to 21-11 Republican. I don’t think anyone finds gerrymandering acceptable, and a glimpse at the examples (in favor of both parties, and one favored by both parties) in the Wikipedia article on the subject is shocking (but not surprising). What’s surprising perhaps is how easily it could be avoided: an algorithm to produce districts with regional integrity, roughly equal populations, and with respect to local units like towns and counties, would be simple to write and simple to use. And it would make our government more representative. And—bonus!—it would mean less safe seats for each party, and that would mean that party primary elections would no longer be the chief concern of far-right or far-left candidates, who would increasingly be forced to compete for actual moderate votes in actual general elections.
- A nonpartisan Supreme Court short list. There is simply no reason we should have a partisan Supreme Court. In effect, we seesaw between left-wing and right-wing legal scholars, between Scalias and Sotomayors. Now I have a lot of respect for Sonia Sotomayor, and a surprising amount of respect for the late Antonin Scalia, but the Supreme Court is supposed to uphold the Constitution and the legal tradition first, and not consider partisan issues or special interests. So why do we allow special interests to dominate the nomination process? (The Heritage Foundation, a sharply conservative think tank, produced a list of eight sufficiently conservative possible nominees to replace Scalia; Donald Trump, within a month, published his own list, which included five of the eight.) We should have the sitting justices nominate a committee of legal scholars, which would be empowered to produce a short list for each new vacancy on the Supreme Court, and the President should be required to choose from this list.
- Ranked Choice Voting. My state, Maine, recently approved ranked choice voting for major state offices. In the computer age, this would be easy to implement, and it has the potential to dissolve the kind of polarization we now face. A Conservative voter could vote first for a true conservative, and then for a moderate as second choice (and then, maybe, for Trump!); a Sanders partisan could vote for Jill Stein first, Hillary Clinton second; neither voter would have to worry about wasting their vote. As with redistricting, this solution is. So. Simple. And while it hasn’t been tried on a large scale yet, more and more places are using it. The promise of voting for the person you find most qualified, rather than entering the voting booth in a game-theoretic state of confusion, should make this a no-brainer.
- Twofer: (a) For conservatives, a balanced budget amendment. This forces the President and Congress to actually live within our means. It’s often said about the BBA that Congress would use smoke and mirrors and budget and tax gimmicks to get around any such restriction; but even the cleverest gimmickry would have to meet the letter of the law. It might not be impossible to run a deficit, but it would be a lot more difficult, which is what is wanted. (b) For liberals, a national health service. We actually have one: it’s called the emergency room, and it’s inefficient in the extreme, expensive and ineffective. We should cover everyone, everyone, for one routine doctor visit per year, one dentist visit per year, and for required procedures such as dental fillings, cholesterol checks, mammograms, and the like, as well as for relatively inexpensive emergencies like appendectomies. No one is going to abuse the free appendectomy. It would save money for businesses and for citizens; it would be a lot easier to administer than the Affordable Care Act is; and it seems (to me) to clearly fall within the range of things best done by society as a whole, like public schooling, fire fighting, law enforcement, and military defense.
So that’s my program. I don’t think we’re getting any of these through the next Congress, but over a five or ten year period, with committed work and crossing of party lines, we could make at least a few of these realities. Some, like ranked choice voting, are coming regardless of what parties want. Some, like the end of the Electoral College, await the day when the Clinton-Gore curse is seen as a threat to a Republican candidate.
But passing just one or two of these reforms will make our democracy more durable and more fair, and the more of them we manage to accomplish, the more responsive our government and our society will be.