How to Fix Congress: Proportional Vote

Politics

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One of the most uttered complaints among voters is the lack of a third party in American politics. Many people complain that the two-party system is failing us because each party really represents a narrow view of a few select supporters.

It can be solved. And it would take a Constitutional amendment stated something like this:

Members of the House of Representatives shall be elected based on the proportion of vote they or their party receives in their respective state.

All elections at the United States federal level are based on winner-take-all. Even the Electoral College, which was created to prevent direct election of the President by the people, is designed on the winner-take-all principle. Even if a party wins 49.6 percent of the vote in a particular state and their opponent wins 50.4 percent, the prevailing party receives all electoral votes. Ironically, this has lead to some Presidents winning based solely on the electoral vote while losing the overall popular vote. Congressional elections, both House and Senate, are also winner-take-all with the lone candidate receiving the most votes serving the entire district or state.

While in America this is natural, the winner-take-all system is not really equitable because many people end up being represented by someone for whom they did not vote.

Winner-take-all elections favor a two-party system and that leads to parties having to take stances on many different issues. It also forces them to make strange bedfellows. Republicans support hardcore capitalists and they also support evangelical Christians. Democrats back organized labor but also fight to expand immigration.

Giving third, fourth or more parties a seat at the legislative table would give them a chance to show the public that they can be a force in politics. With no party holding a 50 percent majority, they would have to compromise with another party in order to pass legislation.

In all likelihood, the additional parties would be based on the existing factions within the two current parties. What sliver of compromise we see today in Republican and Democratic caucuses would likely play out the same way, except with different monikers.

With the way the Constitution is written, there is no real solution to solve the winner-take-all problem with regards to the President and the Senate. Each represents an entire state or an entire country.

But the House of Representatives however, can be fixed in order to allow new voices a chance to speak in Congress. There is a way to shift the House’s makeup to where most every voter can truly be represented by the person they cast their vote for.

Instead of winner-take-all elections for the House of Representatives, we could pursue a proportional vote. For instance, Texas has 38 representative seats. Instead of giving seats to Republicans or Democrats when they win their district by majority vote, statewide votes could be totaled together and then each party would receive seats proportional to the amount of votes they get. So if Republicans win 65 percent of the vote, Democrats 30 percent and Libertarians 5 percent, then Republicans would receive 25 seats, Democrats would get 11 seats and Libertarians would get two seats.

In some countries, a parliament is usually derived from a national vote in which a party receives a number of seats based on how many votes they received nationally. In the United States however, Congress is divided based on representation in each state. Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution dictates that the House of Representatives should be elected by the state they live.

This notion is not new. There are many American city councils, school districts and other local governments that award seats to candidates based on the number of votes they receive in a wide open election. In said cities and school districts, five candidates can vie for three seats and the three with the most votes win the seats. Because there are three seats, voters are allowed three votes.

This same process can be tweaked to possibly open up the House of Representatives to three or more parties.

Every vote would actually count because it would be tallied with the party’s proportion of vote. In the winner-take-all, a person’s vote means nothing unless their party wins. With proportional representation, it would go towards a party that better represents your ideals.

How exactly would candidates be nominated? Representative candidates could be nominated through a primary process in each district. With the new proportional representation, candidates can still be nominated in primary but through a statewide vote instead of by district. This would eliminate candidates being selected in back room straw votes among party elite. It would give voters a chance to participate in the primary process much like they do now.

Candidates could run in a primary and then be ranked according to the number of votes they receive. The candidate with the most votes would be the leader of that state’s party and would be the first to receive a seat based on the proportion of vote their party gets in the general election. Primary voters can vote for one person in a primary. A candidate would receive a seat in the House if he or she ranked high enough in the primary. For example, if a candidate ranked number 10 after the primary and his party wins 12 seats, they would become a representative. If they rank 15, they don’t.

Candidates who want to run independently without a party could still do so. They can win a seat in Congress so long as they receive enough of the overall vote.

There’s another aspect to the House of Representatives that would essentially be dispensed with a proportional vote: gerrymandering. In this past election, Republicans held on to the House of Representatives despite the fact that nationally, Democrats received the majority of the total vote. That’s because of redistricting. Republicans run the majority of state legislatures, who are charged with drawing Congressional districts every 10 years. It is only now that the districting pendulum has swung their way. Before 1994, Democrats had controlled Congress for more than 40 years using the same redistricting methods now used by Republicans.

If candidates are nominated on a state-wide basis, districts would not matter.

Some might argue that eliminating districts would open up another problem, whereby candidates with more statewide recognition would fare better than local candidates. This is true. It would also be more expensive to campaign because candidates would have to travel throughout the state and buy statewide advertising.

Many people also like having someone local represent them, even if they’re not of the same party. However, nothing in the Constitution currently requires candidates to live in the district they represent. A candidate in Dallas can run for a position in Houston (and such instances have happened).

The proportional vote also would mean nothing in places like Wyoming or Alaska, which has so small a population that they’re only allotted one seat in the House.

A proportional vote would no doubt have some negative effects. Lobbyists would still find a way to get their say. Special interests would still have a politician’s ear. Political strategists would find a way to take advantage of the system. There would be a little electoral chaos in the beginning and it would take possibly years before a third party would gain significant footing in the House.

But the thing is, it would eventually happen. The benefits of allowing other parties into the system would likely outweigh any new issues. Why? Because everyone would be represented and there would no longer be a feeling that your vote doesn’t count for much.

Predicting Bad Data

Politics

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I rarely write a blog post in direct response to another article. But I just couldn’t help myself with a post from a The Week story about Neil Newhouse’s predictions for the 2014 congressional elections.

When the 2012 election approached, I became quite obsessed with the polling data trying to get a clue about who would win. And I mean obsessed. I would hover around 538, Huffington Post, Real Clear Politics and any aggregate pollster site I could find. I had a Gallup app on my phone which I checked hourly. I read stories about polling and how some were more accurate than others. I also paid for a pricey copy of The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver.

Not surprising, most of the pollsters called it right in the days leading up to the election. The one state that gave people fits was Florida, which was fitting given that Obama won it by a hair and the total vote wasn’t even complete until days after the election.

Contrary to what people think about polling, they are very accurate when it comes to elections. I think this is largely because pollsters are dealing with definitive data. Voters have to choose one or the other or none. Election polling isn’t the same as judging presidential approval, consumer confidence or even television ratings, which are more subjective and fall on a scale.

But pollsters hired by politicians try quite hard to develop some inside data, information that common, news polls won’t have. They look for this nebulous information hoping it will give them some inside track on the outcome.

Newhouse worked for Romney during the campaign and had Mittens believing he would win the election up until the polls closed. When the numbers rolled in and it was obvious Romney had lost, his campaign was dumbfounded. I honestly don’t know why. Had they been reading the aggregate polls, which are available to everyone, they would have known that in the end, Romney never had a chance.

There were all sorts of finger pointing post-election. They blamed higher than expected minority turnout. They blamed the impact of Sandy. They blamed Romney’s campaign strategy.

While those are valid faults in the campaign loss, it still doesn’t explain how they were so caught off guard through their polling. Again, they were wildly off the mark compared to everyone else, save only Gallup. Surely someone who’d spent a little time on political websites had to be standing next to Romney telling him that Newhouse was off his rocker. But apparently there wasn’t.

One of the things Newhouse implemented to gain his inside track on the polling was voter enthusiasm. He developed some formula in his polling to gauge how motivated Romney’s voters were about voting for him versus Obama’s people. He rated voters’ motivation on a 1 to 10 scale. More often than not, he found Mitt’s people to be more dedicated.

Newhouse and other Romney backers kept pointing to this enthusiasm advantage as some sort of proof for momentum and a bellwether for turnout. Some were skeptical, including Nate Silver, who repeatedly said there was no momentum for Romney leading up to Election Day. (Nate, by the way, called all 50 states correctly based on his aggregate poll).

Newhouse is now using a version of his same formula to predict the 2014 elections.

While I love data, I also admit fully that I don’t completely understand the complex mining thereof. I do however, grasp basic logic. While enthusiasm might provide insight about voter motivation, at the end of the day it comes down to whether a voter shows up or not. Despite the disparity in motivation, a voter who rates their motivation at a 7 or 8 may be just as likely to show up as one who rates their motivation at a 9 or a 10. And guess what? Their votes count the same.

That’s really the nature of election polling. It’s this or that. No amount of data massaging will get you a magically accurate, contrary opinion that no one else has. It’s not like processing information on stock pricing.

Now, Newhouse isn’t really going out on a limb here by saying that 2014 doesn’t look good for Democrats. Sixth-year elections for a president’s party have never gone well. Ever. His predictions about the November elections likely will pan out barring some unforeseen disaster like a massive Aikenism or Hurricane Sandy or credit default.

We shouldn’t be surprised if he’s right. But we shouldn’t buy the motivation scale either. It just doesn’t add up.

Minority Hostage

Politics

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I always like to start off with numbers.

Percentage of voters who opted for President Obama in November – 53 percent

Percentage of voters who identify themselves as Tea Party in January – 8 percent.

And yet, we are on the verge of a government shutdown because conservatives in the House are afraid of that 8 percent. Tea Party people are bullying those representatives by threatening them with a challenger in the upcoming primaries if the reps don’t vote how they like on the looming budget/Obamacare issue.

So the country’s economy and credit rating hangs in the balance because of a very slim sliver of the electorate. Hardly seems right. But don’t blame the Tea Party backers, they’ve figured out the primary process and it has worked, at least when it comes to picking candidates — not in the general election, i.e. Aiken, Mourdoch, etc.

The people who are to blame are the moderate voters. They can make a difference but they are often apathetic in the primaries. Why? Because many of them know they’ll vote Blue or Red in the general election regardless of the candidate. It’s that default setting which the Tea Party has preyed upon. Because they’re fired up and are willing to turn out for the primaries, Tea Partyers have the power.

The specter of a shutdown and credit default is, for the most part, theater. Cruz is going full-tilt boogie for the shutdown knowing damn good and well it won’t happen, or if it does it won’t be for long. He knows too that it if it has negative effects, it won’t come back on him. He gets to be the loud ideologue with no repercussions.

Yes, Obamacare is unpopular. Most people don’t want it. But most people, both moderates and zealots, voted for the President in 2012 knowing that he would never repeal his signature achievement. In other words, they want Congress to work together and stop with the non-productive grandstanding more than they want to get rid of government healthcare.

I’d like to think eventually that voters will get sick of the gridlock and push out some of the incumbents who are making it difficult for Washington to do its business. Sadly, that won’t happen. No president’s party has done well in a sixth-year, mid-term election in the past 100 years. No doubt Republicans will hold the House in 2014 and they have a good shot at winning the Senate.

So no change. We’ll get yet another two years of gridlock and inaction thanks to an obnoxious, obstinate minority who has no moral high ground.

To be fair though, it’s not like politicians have ever really cared what the general public thinks, at least not until November.

Congressional Blame

Politics

capitol

I’m going to start with a few numbers.

Here goes.

Congressional approval rating before November 2012 election: 18%

Percentage of Congressional incumbents reelected in 2012: 90%

Congressional approval now: 16%

[Stats according to Gallup and Bloomberg]

When you ask people about our good ‘ole Bicameral insane asylum, the reaction is strong, swift and furious. People really don’t like our Reps and Senators.

Why? Well, the general accusation is that they don’t get anything done. Apparently when you take 600 people from all over the country, stick them in a room and then they don’t bang out legislation like clockwork, their constituents get angry.

Another reason I keep hearing is something along the lines of “they need to stop bickering and just do what’s best for the country.” Yeah, right. Congress doesn’t really work for America. They work for their voters.

John Boehner doesn’t worry about what affects New Yorkers, he works for the 8th District of Ohio. Nancy Pelosi doesn’t cater to Texas, she works for the voters in the 12th District of California. Everything they do, every vote they make is motivated by what the voters in that district will do to them every other November.

So then what do you do? You have roughly 1 in 10 who don’t like their representative and/or senator. And yet 9 in 10 of those incumbents keep getting sent back to Capitol Hill. Talk about a mixed message. People like their own guy, just not the other people their guy has to deal with.

If it’s one thing you got to give to those Tea Party groups, they know how to bring the fear out of representatives in D.C. If a Republican doesn’t toe the Tea Party line, they start looking for a new Capitol tenant.

Conservatives are scared out of their minds that the Tea Party will conjure an opponent in their upcoming primary.

The Tea Party backers have proven a point. A little bit of angst, organization and involvement can generate change. Digging up a primary opponent will make a Congressman think twice about what they vote for and who they side with.

Every Congressman and Congresswoman should have that fear, regardless of their party or their district. But with a 90 percent reelection rating, the disapproval rating will never matter.

So to all of you who complain about Congress, and there are a lot of you, do something about it. If you keep sending the same people back to D.C. over and over again, you’re going to get the same result… over and over.

You get the government you elect.

 

(a version of this post appeared on medium.com)