Sunday, August 21, 2011

Political Dysfunction: Super Majorities, Winner-Take-All Elections, and Amendments

Joe Mathews and Mark Paul have written an interesting book on California and its political problems: California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It. It should be a “must read” for anyone interested in the state and its future. One thing that emerged from the reading was how similar California and Washington (DC) politics have become. It is as if the national government turned to California in order to learn how to not govern effectively.

The structure of the state resembles that of the nation.

“Californians have swung their partisan identities more in line with their ideological preferences and clumped themselves into communities of the like-minded, creating a new political geography, with a solid Pacific sea of democratic blue lapping a Republican red inland of valleys and mountains.”

This rigid geography and some artful drawing of boundaries have produced legislative districts that rarely change hands. The strong political winds of 2010 left California unperturbed. Mathews and Paul see a number of things terribly wrong with this situation. They point out that the root of much of our dysfunction arises from the decision to have of winner-take-all, or plurality, elections.

“In much of the rest of the democratic world, and particularly outside the former British colonies, nations have rejected single-member plurality electoral systems in favor of proportional representation to elect their legislative bodies. They have found that proportional representation (PR) ‘is better at ensuring that the maximum number of citizens are represented, that both majorities and minorities have a say in government, that all parties have their fair share of seats in legislatures, that seats change in response to changes in voters’ views, that the majority rules, and that policy makers faithfully reflect the political views of the majority of the electorate,’ as political scientist Douglas Amy aptly put it.”

That sure sounds like the kind of government we would like to have. However, the current system forces us in a quite different direction. It is almost impossible to initiate a third party under the current system. To get a representative elected a new party must win a majority of the votes in a given election. That just never happens. Occasionally someone with the label “independent” will gain public office, but it is usually someone who has already gained recognition through traditional channels. And it is always someone who is being elected as an individual. Parties need time and room to grow. Under proportional representation a third party member might gain a seat with say 10% of the vote—a much easier task.

The authors’ suggestion for California is to enlarge legislative districts, or increase the number of legislators, or both, in order to have multiple representatives for each district. A person then getting as little as 10% of the vote, for example, could win a seat. With too low a threshold, there might be too many little parties. This approach could be used in Congressional elections in the various states.

The two-party system carries with it some negatives. In a “safe” district, the eventual winner is actually selected by the few people who show up for a primary vote, assuming there are multiple candidates. Everyone else’s vote doesn’t count. Is it any wonder that people lose interest in voting, particularly in non-presidential elections?

In a two-party mode, everyone gets stuffed into one of the two parties no matter what their political beliefs. When an election is held, the candidates must spend enormous amounts of time and money defining who they are to the voters. Party membership is not necessarily of much help. As a result we have two individuals contesting, rather than two political viewpoints being argued. Personal politics always gets ugly and distracts from any reasonable arguing of policy. In a multi-party environment, the candidates tend to align well with the political positions of their parties. Candidates, as individuals, become less important, while party platforms become more important—issues over personalities, what a concept!

For most of the twentieth century the Democratic Party was home for both the most liberal and the most conservative members of the legislature. That actually was a healthier system than what we have now because the Democrats were in effect two parties. But now, as in California years ago, the two parties have become more polarized. As if there was a playbook to be read somewhere, the political scene in Washington began to resemble the dysfunction inherent in California.

Combining the two-party system with super-majority voting requirements invites disaster. California has had a requirement for two-thirds vote to pass a budget since 1935. It was finally voted out by an Initiative in the last election. While in place, it led to decades in which politicians aimed at deadlock so they could sell their votes for pet projects. In such a system, the minority rules. The majority is in power and they will get blamed when things go wrong. The minority can hold its breath and stomp its feet until it gets its way. The great tradition in California was to refuse to pass a budget because spending was too high, but then agree to vote in favor of it provided some funding was added to a favorite cause. In the 1970s California added, by another Initiative, the requirement for a two-thirds vote for all revenue increasing measures. The result was gridlock squared. Not surprisingly, the system worked to eliminate new taxes, but it did not eliminate new spending.

For most of recent memory the Republicans have been the minority party in California. They have used their minority status effectively. When the Republicans became the minority party in Congress in 2008, they had a model for how to operate. With the super majority required to close off debate in the Senate, they had the power to bring legislation to a halt. That is essentially what they have done. The Democrats did not try to change the Senate rules when they might have been able, effectively announcing that they want to maintain the ability to bring legislation to a halt when they are next in the minority. How does one get out of this mode? One way is to do away with the super-majority requirement. Another is to have a third (or fourth) party that can provide a swing vote. In the US, people have generally made fun of multiparty governments. While there are some that are in fact humor provoking, the time has come when the failings of having two parties are obvious.

Much has been made of the Initiative process in California. It is relatively easy to get an Initiative on the ballot which will effectively alter the state constitution and prohibit state legislators from making changes. Any alterations must again be voted on by the people. This sounds like a very democratic way to run a government, but in practice it has been a very efficient means by which special interests can have their needs met. A whole industry has developed to facilitate getting Initiatives placed on the ballot. Voters have often voiced their frustration with their government by passing bills that effectively tie the hands of their legislators. This generally adds to the dysfunction. Term limits were put in place in this manner. The obvious result is to have rotating batches of representatives that don’t know much about legislating—and often care less.

The federal government is not going to introduce an Initiative process like California’s, but there has emerged a disturbing trend towards trying to legislate by Constitutional Amendment. This is the same process that got California into so much trouble. The latest version is the attempt to push for a balanced budget amendment. It is hard to imagine a more short-sighted (read stupid) initiative.

As the man keeps saying: “Change is hard!” Yes it is. Perhaps by beginning to entertain the notion that your country’s political process is not the best in the world, a start can be made.

If you are interested in how not to run a government, check out California Crackup by Joe Mathews and Mark Paul. They also provide some good ideas on how to fix a broken one.


  1. One should study the parliamentary system before opting for multiple parties. One would think that this system which guarantees that the executive and legislative branches work together would be powerful. But multiple parties usually make it not so. The coalitions needed are so weak that the government falls at the drop of a hat. Look at Italy since WWII. If you think the federal government is paralyzed now, just think how bad it could be if no party controlled either the Senate or House. It could be chaos even worse than today.

  2. The argument for a third party is driven by the need to escape from the minority domination inherent when a super-majority is required. I agree that adding multiple parties can be destabilizing.


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