AUSTIN, Texas—Good news: The Bush people have put out a new “strategy.” The bad news is it’s the same as the old one.
The Pentagon’s strategic review plan again commits us to promoting democracy hither and yon through such effective means as preemptive war, bombing and other good stuff.
This is the same plan we’ve been working from, with mixed results so far. In the Middle East, the Palestinians had an election and put Hamas in charge. That didn’t seem to make anyone happy. Lebanon had an election and put Hezbollah in charge. The theory that democracy would solve all problems is especially dicey in Iraq. The Iraqis have now elected an entire government, but they don’t seem to be able to get it to gel. Meanwhile, we are committed to forcing democracies into existence as though they were so many slow spring bulbs.
I do like the idea of supporting democracy, however, and think we should try it—especially here in the U.S. of A. To this end, a couple of dandy ideas are now circulating, and I think they’re worth your support and excitement. For ages, all good reformers have wanted to get rid of the Electoral College and have direct popular election of presidents, instead. The disastrous election in 2000 finally culminated in Bush v. Gore, a Supreme Court decision so bad even the court disowned it at the time.
Every nightmare scenario about just how screwed up things could get with the Electoral College all came true. What a giant mess: a textbook case of why the Electoral College is toxic piffle. But the desire to Do Something about the mess in 2000 burned itself out. The Republicans who took over Congress are just not natural reformers.
Trouble is, the system has just about “ruint” presidential elections, which now turn on a handful of swing states, while everyone else is ignored. While millions of dollars, hours of political ads and hordes of politicians descend every four years on the swing states, you can barely tell there’s an election going on in the rest of the country. Should you live safely tucked into a solidly red or blue state, your vote is unsought, uncounted and unnecessary—we know how your state’s votes will be cast whether you vote or not.
There is a new move promoted by the Campaign for a National Popular Vote to end-run all the problems normally associated with abolishing the Electoral College. This is a state-by-state effort to instruct each state’s electors to vote for whichever candidate gets the most popular votes nationwide. Look at 2004: A switch of 60,000 votes in Ohio would have thrown the election to John Kerry, despite the fact that George Bush was 3 million votes ahead nationwide.
The Campaign for a National Popular Vote has a dandy new approach. Instead of trying to amend the Constitution through a long, difficult process that can and will be stalled by small states, the campaign proposes a simpler, elegant solution. According to the Constitution, each state legislature can instruct its own electors to cast their votes however the state decides, usually as winner-take-all for whichever candidate carries the state. But there is no reason a state legislature cannot instruct its electors to vote for whoever wins the popular vote.
Democracy! What a concept! The states can do this one by one, subscribing to an interstate compact that would take effect when enough states join to elect the actual winner—a majority of the 538 electoral votes.
Wouldn’t it be fun? Candidates campaigning everywhere—everyone’s vote wanted? Democrats in Texas, Republicans in New York, all sought after, cared about as though we actually matter. Yes, this would make campaigns harder on candidates and probably more expensive, as well. And that in turn makes public campaign financing all the more likely. Yea!
Another potentially hopeful development lurks in the Texas redistricting case. True, if the Supreme Court reverses the appalling Texas plan, the guy most likely to benefit is Rep. Tom DeLay (he would get back a slew of Republican voters he gave away), but sest la vye. Gerrymandering congressional districts—an art form long practiced by both parties—may have an aged pedigree, but like money in politics, it has gone so far that it is destroying democracy.
With computers, districts can be drawn to such perfect political one-sidedness that there is, in fact, no point in holding elections at all. The Supreme Court is highly unlikely to stop this process entirely, but even a check on it would be useful.
There is another simple, elegant solution for this problem. Iowa already uses it—a nonpartisan redistricting commission. The result is that
three of Iowa’s four four of Iowa’s five congressional seats are competitive. Politicians actually have to go out and listen to voters in order to get elected.
In most districts across the U.S., reelection is so automatic it might as well be a hereditary right. When at least 98% of Congress gets reelected every year, one really has to question whether democracy exists at all in this country. Now’s our chance—sign us up for the Pentagon democracy plan.