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  • Eric Schwartz

Democrats should back changes to electoral system

Let me run a couple of statements by you. Do you think they are true?

1. Most people feel that there is not enough bipartisan cooperation in government.

2. Most people feel that they are effectively cut out of the political system. They feel that the political discourse is dominated by extremes on the left and right.

Many of us – if not most of us – have this uneasy feeling about our current political situation that these statements reflect. We have a feeling that the work of government isn’t being done because the people elected are unable to work together. In the current environment, partisan positions that are staked out and defended – to the detriment of the common good.

There are many reasons for this increased and poisonous level of partisanship, and I’m not going to review them all here. Factors that may lead to increased partisanship include everything from demographic patterns to the usage of social media. Whatever the causes of this environment of hyper-partisanship, the fact is that it exists and its effect on governance and society is not good.

But it’s unlikely that we’re going to turn back the clock to the day when people got all their news from middle-of-the-road news sources. And we can’t unilaterally decide that we’re going to somehow integrate the red states with the blue state inhabitants. We can, however, change the way in which we elect our government. We can make changes that diminish the impact of hyper-partisanship and allow more room for candidates and voters who long for more moderation and cooperation in government.

This is not a new problem, and different medicine has been prescribed from time to time in the past. For example, Rep. John Delaney introduced legislation this year – as he did in the two previous congressional sessions- to address the problem of gerrymandered congressional districts and low-voter turnout.

Also in this session, a bill has been introduced in the House that would attack from the problem from a different direction. The Fair Representation Act, introduced by Rep. Don. Beyer of Virginia and co-sponsored by Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Rep. Ro Khanna of California, creates a different way of electing representatives. The House of Representatives would remain its current size – 435 representatives – but the districts would be larger, and voters would rank and elect several winners. The law would change the winner-take-all approach to governing, allowing more room for the full spectrum of supporters to get involved and be represented.

But wait. Don’t we have to change the Constitution for changes like this? Isn’t that really difficult?

Yes, changing electoral rules is difficult. Getting anything through Congress is difficult. But no, we don’t have to change the Constitution for this change. The current system dates to a federal statute passed in 1967, so the law needs to be changed, but that’s far from impossible.

But shouldn’t we be focused on Trump? What about his unconstitutional behavior? What about dismantling the EPA? What about Russia? What about threats to civil liberties? What about climate change?

Yes, as patriots and concerned citizens of the world we should be concerned about all of the above. But opposing Trump is not enough. And in order to win elections, we need to broaden our base. We don’t need to compromise our principles.

Personally, I think the Democratic Party candidates should stand on a platform based on economic justice, strong protection for civil liberties – including the right to an abortion, and strong positions on civil rights. But we also need to address the problem that most people are recognizing that our system just isn’t working. The very way in which we choose our government is failing us.

Reflect on who now sits in the Oval Office, and see if you disagree.

Let me add here that the problem with our elections is not just the staggering sums of money spent in the election process. That’s a very big problem with horrible consequences for our democracy, but we probably will need a constitutional amendment to deal with continuing impact of Citizens United. This problem has to be addressed, but that could be even more difficult than the changes in electoral rules. We can and should take measures that can be realized before a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizen United is ratified.

As Democrats, it’s in our interest to get out in front in dealing with this issue. Taking a bold position that recognizes the gut feeling of so many well-meaning Americans, a feeling that they are not being listened to or valued in the current system, can position Democrats as the party that is interested in bipartisan cooperation and good governance. Staking out the moral high ground is both smart electoral politics – and the right thing to do.

Eric Schwartz

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