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  • Writer's pictureTom Mast

Congress’s Electoral Methods

Tom Mast, founder Solve American Gridlock

January 2023


This post to the Solve American Gridlock website blog and our Facebook page begins with analysis and findings from the excellent book The Politics Industry by Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter, published in 2020. Ms. Gehl is a former business owner and executive who turned her efforts some years ago to political innovation. Mr. Porter is a famous author of over twenty management books and a professor at the Harvard Business School. Together, they have clearly analyzed the fundamental issues with Congress and laid out badly needed reforms.


The authors see the Problem as Congress’s duopoly (Merriam-Webster: control by two political parties) whose purpose is to “protect and perpetuate the politics industry itself and grow its power, not to produce results.” They see the root cause as the Politics Industry, not certain parties, policies, or people. Their Objective is to create more “choice” – more competition. They want to stimulate action among us citizens, not merely analysis – although analysis is always necessary to ensure one is working on the real problem and coming up with the right answers.


The book places much emphasis on the importance of competition, not surprisingly since Michael Porter has a career of teaching, writing, and consulting in America’s competitive business industries. One might say that we observe severe competition between the only two significant political parties in America. Yes, they do fight, but it is primarily competition for power, not problem solving. The duopoly colludes in designing and perpetuating the rules for elections and in writing legislation in ways that don’t work well for the populace. We have antitrust laws to prevent practices that stifle competition in business, but alas, the Politics Industry has no such brakes on its practices. Later, we will see that most important countries have more than two parties, an average of 3.9.


Our elections machinery is a huge cause of our lack of competition in government. The two parties have succeeded in restricting new and small parties from participating fairly. The party primaries, cited in the book as the “eye of the needle”, have evolved through efforts of the two parties at the state level to send a candidate from each of the major parties to the general election. These party primaries decide the winners, exacerbated by a 1967 federal statute and rules that have led to over 80% of House seats being “safe seats”. These party primaries generally are poorly attended. In many states, candidates can win with less than a majority vote. It is difficult for a new party to obtain the right to participate. If a third-party candidate with a new perspective does enter the competition, he or she is usually viewed as a “spoiler”, one who is more likely to draw votes from one of the leading candidates than the other. The result in the general election is that we all too often find ourselves holding our noses and voting for the lesser of two evils.


The constitution is very brief on the topic of election machinery for Congress. It says that the state legislatures have this job, then goes on to say that “Congress may at any time by law make or alter such Regulations.” The state legislatures are populated overwhelmingly by the same two major parties.


The book quotes President John Adams saying “There is nothing I dread so much as the division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to the other.”


Gehl and Porter propose New Rules for election machinery. Final-Five voting would have open, single-ballot, non-partisan primaries in which the top-five candidates qualify for the general election (called top-five primaries) and ranked-choice voting (RCV) in general elections.” These are hugely important changes that are way overdue!


The other topic is legislative machinery, the processes Congress uses to create laws. The book says that the elections and legislative machineries are interdependent and that fixing both is much more powerful than fixing only one. However, it makes the point that the elections machinery changes must come first.


There are many important examples cited in the book of the abuses of an effective legislative process. Budgeting is late, poorly done, and often ignored. Brinksmanship in budgeting, approval of debt ceilings, and important bills is now common. All too often, many issues are rolled into a giant piece of legislation including some that would never have passed into law if considered on their own. Members often aren’t given adequate time to study or even read the bill. The unwritten Hastert Rule dictates that the Speaker will not allow a floor vote unless a majority of the majority party supports it. Beginning about 50 years ago, regular order began fading away. Previously, strong committees debated bills and amendments and selected the bills to go to the floor for a vote. Committee chairs were selected by length of service, not as now by party leadership. In the mid-90’s, the Speaker began appointing all committee members. Both parties participated at various times in instituting these changes. Senior leaders decide which bills move to the floor for discussion, amending, and voting. The party in power controls what happens on the floor. Today, conference committees to work out the differences between House and Senate bills are nearly extinct. If both houses are controlled by one party, its leadership meets behind closed doors and announces the outcome.


This list is just a few of the legislative abuses in Congress. Gehl and Porter say “It is accepted as normal when the Mitch McConnells and Nancy Pelosis of America – currently our most powerful members of Congress – announce publicly and proudly that their top priorities are either resisting the current president or electing more members of their own party.”


Consequences: “The health of our democracy, our long-term economic competitiveness, and our shared prosperity and social progress…” has been badly damaged”. Lack of problem solving is a result of dysfunction. Both parties keep a topic unsolved as a tool to get reelected and gain power. There is a tendency of our election and legislative weaknesses to increase the power of members with extreme views, reducing the percentage of moderates; a graph in the book shows moderates in congress in 1951 to have been by party 44 and 41% Vs 11 and 6% in 2018. There is “declining bipartisan support of landmark legislation (1935-2017)”. There is “No Action without a Time-Sensitive Crisis…”. Trust in the federal government had dropped from 73% in 1964 to 17% in 2018.


The percentage of Independents in the U.S. has risen between 2004 and 2019 from 31% to 41%. This shows that people are unhappy with our two powerful parties. While Independents in 2019 stood at 41%, Democrats and Republicans respectively were at 30% and 28% per Gallup. With both major parties now having under 31% popularity, but still winning almost all seats, it is crystal clear that the flawed election machinery is to blame. People know pivotal changes are needed.


How to Effect Change. Gehl and Porter speak of “Laboratories”, meaning the states. Already some states have been experimenting with various forms of open primaries and ranked choice voting. Our country is unusual in the autonomy of its states and their flexibility to try new ideas on a smaller-than-national scale.


To make pivotal change happen, grassroots efforts are needed to push their state legislatures to action.


Comments


Final-Five open primaries is an idea long overdue. It can greatly reduce the overwhelming control of the two main parties to choose the candidates who move on to the general election. It would foster the strength and growth of new parties and perspectives. It would put moderates more in control. It is something that can be rolled out and tested in the fifty states.


Ranked Choice voting also is used more and more in various states and in other countries. It too fosters more candidates and parties. In a primary, it always sends a candidate to the general election who has won a majority vote, not only a plurality.


Both important changes in election machinery (often called electoral systems or electoral methods) will promote much better participation in primaries and foster the evolution of new parties, coalitions, innovation, and cooperation. Coalitions can be different for each piece of legislation, replacing extreme viewpoints with ones more nuanced and thoughtful.


The United States is very much an outlier in having only two effective parties, effective meaning having a high enough percentage of members in Congress to influence process, votes, and legislation. “The height of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” Having more parties would cause coalitions to form, require negotiating, and promote the prospering of more moderate approaches. Other important countries have an average of 3.9 parties.

Single-member districts are a root cause of Congress’s Dysfunctionality. Congress created them in 1967, using its power given in the Constitution, Article I, Section 4 as “…but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations…” Since single member districts are federal law, the states cannot change back to multi-member districts. Congress’s ability to do its job well began its decline just about the time this law was passed – not a coincidence. Why should we expect members of Congress to pay attention to their constituents if over 80% of them hold “safe seats”? Congress must fix what it broke!


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