Friday, September 30, 2011

Welcome To The Jungle

This week, CNN has been running a series based on one question: why is the American government so broken? To claim that it's not is at this point almost comically ridiculous.

(In other news, William J. Bennett is almost comically ridiculous.)

As part of this series, CNN's iReport is soliciting ideas as to how to improve matters. Not that we've needed much provocation around these parts. But hey, what's one more for the occasion. I'm not averse to tossing out whatever idea crosses my mind and seeing what comes of it.

Let's start with one of the most common complaints: a two-party system that breeds, more than ever, a string of highly-charged partisan contests and highly-charged partisan government, if there is government at all. That's largely a natural consequence of our existing election format, commonly called first-past-the-post. In essence, first-past-the-post means there's one winner and second place gets jack squat. No matter how much you make noise about third parties, as long as you have first-past-the-post, the number of candidates that seriously contest will naturally reduce to two. People want to win at the end of the day. There's no place for making 'statement' votes when you want to win. You just want someone who stands a chance of winning, and however many candidates you start with, any time one falls far enough behind, supporters start jumping ship to a contender. The logical end point is that they jump ship and jump ship some more until two candidates remain.

The most common alternative presented is called 'single transferable vote', where you rank the candidates in order of preference. The votes are counted, and trailing candidates are removed- and their votes transferred to each voter's next choice- until someone gets a majority. But in a sense, that kind of happens now, naturally, in first-past-the-post, as the trailing candidates are knocked out of the race entirely.

Besides, we already use something much better.

From my observation, whenever it enters the public consciousness, probably the most popular voting format currently used in the United States, in terms of approval rating, is the jungle primary. In a jungle primary, instead of candidates from separate parties segregated into what amounts to a semifinal, every candidate in the field is pitted against all the others in a free-for-all, with the top two candidates advancing to the general election regardless of their party. The figuring is, with enough candidates from all sides of the political spectrum, you have to focus more on doing your own thing and making voters like you as opposed to making them hate the others. It's just more economical a use of resources.

But there are only two winners in a jungle primary. It's still too easy to focus on destroying the contenders.

What if there were 435 winners?

Another commonly-cited problem with Congress is the concept of gerrymandering- redrawing districts for maximum political advantage. It's a problem as old as the country and which has been complained about just as long. In a sense, though, state borders are a sort of passive gerrymandering: the borders determine where you can draw districts, and because every state must have at least one seat, it can give overrepresentation to underpopulated areas and vice versa.

Both problems, and several more besides, can be fixed in one fell swoop by eliminating all concept of district lines, including state lines, and creating a single, national jungle-style House election.

Here's how it would work:

*Every candidate, regardless of party, is permitted as many candidates as they wish to run. Once they get approved for the ballot, they get to skip the primary and proceed directly to the general election; there is no preliminary elimination round. However, because of the sheer amount of candidates, none of them will actually be on the ballot. They will all be write-in. Getting on the ballot merely makes you "election-eligible" (really just another term for having ballot access now), meaning votes for you will count and votes for people not on the ballot- say, Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, unless someone is actually named those things- won't count. Every candidate must run under a unique name (you can use middle names or initials to make this work), so that election officials know who to credit with which votes.

*On Election Day, a voter may select their favorite five candidates, or whatever number seems most appropriate. (We're not going to ask them to cast 435 votes.) If the voter can't remember anyone, they can request a catalog which every precinct will need to have on hand, listing all the candidates and their hometowns. (Parties will not be listed.) The 435 election-eligible candidates with the most votes are elected to Congress.

Some questions you might be asking; not an exhaustive list but enough to answer a fair amount of concerns:

So if state borders are gone, how are less-represented parts of the country supposed to get representation? Won't we just end up with 435 urban Congresspeople?

Not necessarily. Don't get me wrong, the urban contingent will very likely go up. That's just a natural correction from the current rural overrepresentation, and someone somewhere is going to get screwed over by it. But it's not going to be 435 residents of Manhattan either. Even without borders, people are going to gravitate towards candidates from their own home region, and candidates will get elected accordingly. At some point, the New Yorkers and Los Angelenos are going to cannibalize themselves and limit the number of people they send to Congress. The makeup won't get too far away from reality, I don't think.

But still, how are you going to make sure you have a member of Congress to represent you?

That's not really a thing with this system. You won't have one Congressman. You'll have 435 of them, all of which you're responsible for and all of which answer to you (theoretically). Whether you get someone from your home region is up in the air, but even if they're all halfway across the country, they still have to answer to you regardless. Everyone has to answer to everybody. Eventually I figure most people will get used to it. (As a side effect, this will cut down on members of Congress grabbing pork for their districts. WHAT district?)

So my guy from Minnesota has to answer to people in New Mexico? Seriously?

Yes, but don't get too nuts with the idea, because, again, people naturally gravitate towards their home regions. That will include the candidates. They're free to press for votes from wherever they wish. They can choose their own base. (And some bases will naturally cross state lines. Consider the Chicagoland are, which crosses into northeast Indiana, or the city of Texarkana, which straddles Texas and Arkansas.) But in practice, they're going to look for votes from the places they know, and those places will be places they live or have previously lived. Candidates from Minnesota can go after votes from New York if they want, but New York voters will be so much more likely to want New York candidates that it's much more worth their time to just stump for Minnesota votes instead. They will, in practice, be liable to wherever it is their votes are coming from. New Mexico can threaten Minnesota, but unless votes are coming from there, it's not much of a threat.

Won't the incumbents just all ride that incumbency to re-election? How do the challengers get enough name recognition?

Maybe at the top of the leaderboard, yes. Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner aren't going anywhere under this system. But first off, they're not going anywhere anyway. And second, if you're trying to reduce incumbency, you're looking at the wrong end of the standings. Look towards the guys you've never heard of. At the bottom of the pile, the incumbents have name recognition problems of their own because the more recognizable members of Congress have stolen all their airtime. That makes them more vulnerable to a challenger.

How is this going to make people attack each other less?

Too many targets and too much difficulty in figuring out who your best target is. You may be competing for home-region votes with someone, but you are still competing against everybody. If two people attack each other too much, and their home-region voters are fed up enough to send their votes outside the area, it could end up sending the both of them out. And while the more well-known members of Congress provide tempting targets, odds are you're not getting rid of them precisely because they're well-known. It's only worth it to attack, in a pragmatic sense, if it means you'll win at their expense. In a 435-seat jungle format, that's almost impossible to ensure.

The polls aren't going to be able to help you. They're built to look for the leaders. The polling system we have now may tell you who's going to come in first, but if you're on the bubble and you need to know whether you're in or out, good luck with that. There are polls that don't even ask the opinions of 435 people; let alone enough to find out who's in 435th place. You have no idea who to most effectively go after. There are too many bogies on too many sides of you to know which ones need to be shot down. And even if you and the media do find the bubble, everyone on the bubble is going to get focused on immediately, thus raising the name recognition of everyone on the bubble, shifting them around as opinions solidify on a whole bunch of under-the-radar names, and before you know it there's a brand new bubble. All you can really do is build yourself up and hope for the best.

So hang on, if someone is going to entrench themselves further just by being the biggest ass possible, doesn't that just make things worse?

That is a risk, granted. In order for it to work, you have to be a very public ass. And that carries its own risks. But that is a downside to the plan.

Then how is this going to give us better representation?

Well, aside from the fact that Congress would convert from a group of 435 individuals into one 435-member team, the partisans won't have as much power. They will still exist. The most partisan groups will coalesce behind candidates and send them through. But they won't have a stranglehold. In addition, you will see third parties emerge with seats. In 435 one-seat contests, it's always going to come down to Democrat vs. Republican. The third parties, while they have support, can't gel that support in any one district and go home empty-handed. In a 435-seat national jungle, the third parties can band together, put forward a few chosen names, and sneak them in in 389th place or something. They'll have their seats. They'll have their footholds. From there, the rest is up to them.

For the same reason, you'll also see a greater number of candidates. A lot of people don't run for office because the district in which they reside is too stacked against them, or the incumbent too formidable. I'm going to be drawn into a district containing Jim Sensenbrenner in the next election. This is the guy that was given the task of authoring the Patriot Act. Were I to run, the district is way off my leanings and Sensenbrenner would absolutely paste me. In a jungle election, I could just sidestep Sensenbrenner entirely. I could say to myself 'All I need to do is perform better than, say, this random freshman from Missouri and I'll be in good shape', and find support from places more likely to support me. Through that route, I could.... well, let's be honest, I'd still get my ass handed to me, but it'd be a lot closer than if I had to face Sensenbrenner in a one-on-one scenario. Besides, in a first-past-the-post format, all his guns would be turned on me. In a jungle scenario, he'd have far too many other opponents to worry about to focus on me. I'd at least have a fighting chance at being able to have my own voice.

More candidates means more options, hopefully better options, and more chances for voters to find something they actually want.

Okay, so let's suppose someone dies or resigns or whatever and leaves a seat open. Then what?

Fair enough concern. Let's work it like this:

Any time a seat is vacated, a two-month clock starts on a special election, which works the same as the main election with the addendum that, if any additional seats are vacated during that time, those seats are filled in the same special election. So if Al leaves office and leaves one seat, and five people run for the seat, the winner gets it. But if during those two months, Bob leaves as well, the top two of those five candidates get seats as opposed to just the winner. (If a seat is vacated with six months or less until the next general election, it will remain empty because at that point, it's not really worth it.)

What about the Senate?

Whole other story. Not my focus today. But a ton of Senate candidates come out of the House, so it will have an effect there as well. I can't guarantee the third-party candidates would be able to get that promotion, but the groundwork would be at least partially in place for it to happen.

If you have any questions not addressed here, by all means, bring them up in the comments area. That's what it's there for.

No comments: