Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Our Undemocratic Constitution, cont.: fixes from Calif. and Down Under

I generally take Thomas Friedman's enthusiasms with a spoonful of salt (especially his corporate enthusiasms). But today he retails two interesting ideas from Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution and Stanford  (interesting that Friedman cites only Stanford) that could lead toward fixes in Our Undemocratic Constitution. First:
let every state emulate California’s recent grass-roots initiative that took away the power to design Congressional districts from the state legislature and put it in the hands of an independent, politically neutral, Citizens Redistricting Commission. It will go to work after the 2010 census and reshape California’s Congressional districts for the 2012 elections. Henceforth, districts in California will not be designed to be automatically Democratic or Republican — so more of them will be competitive, so more candidates will only be electable if they appeal to the center, not just cater to one party.

There's an element of trying to jump off your shadow in creating depoliticized commissions.  The experts are usually picked by elected officials, and no one is ideology-free, of course. But that doesn't mean that commissions don't work.  Politics can be sublimated if not eliminated. Commission members are not up for election, they are picked in a manner that balances their political propensities, those selected generally have a reputation as reality-based nonideologues, and they are forced to work together.  The base closing commission worked; the 9/11 Commission did some good, in truth-telling if not in policy results; the Social Security commission at least provided some cover or impetus for politicians to strike a deal; and the President at least has high hopes for the "MedPAC on steroids" in the health reform bill.

Next up:
get states to adopt “alternative voting.” One reason independent, third-party, centrist candidates can’t get elected is because if, in a three-person race, a Democrat votes for an independent, and the independent loses, the Democrat fears his vote will have actually helped the Republican win, or vice versa. Alternative voting allows you to rank the independent candidate your No. 1 choice, and the Democrat or Republican No. 2. Therefore, if the independent does not win, your vote is immediately transferred to your second choice, say, the Democrat. Therefore, you have no fear that in voting for an independent you might help elect your real nightmare — the Republican. Nothing has held back the growth of independent, centrist candidates more, said Diamond, “than the fear that if you vote for one of them you will be wasting your vote. Alternative voting, which Australia has, can overcome that.”
Perhaps this could work - but why does the "independent" get tagged as the one whose vote can be allocated to another if s/he doesn't win?  What about third party candidates? Our our two national parties permanently privileged everywhere? Surely there's a way to structure this so that the reallocation is mathematically based, rather than based on existing party status.

(Obviously these ideas deserve closer study than that afforded by a couple of paragraphs in an op-ed. Apologies for the bloggy impulse to shoot off with free associations on scanty data. I'll try to take a closer look at more leisure.)

Perhaps the broader point is that, given the extreme difficulty of amending the national Constitution, structural reform can trickle up from the states. If depoliticized redistricting can be demonstrated to work, the demonstration could generate real pressure for a major Constitutional amendment.

State constitutions provided a model for the federal one. Perhaps now they can drive some remodeling.

1 comment:

  1. "Surely there's a way to structure this so that the reallocation is mathematically based, rather than based on existing party status."

    Sounds like you're talking about approval or range voting here.