Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Representative Democracy?

As a new resident of Connecticut, I recently completed and sent in my voter registration form in order to fulfill my duty as a citizen of the United States on November 2nd.

The form asks, “Do you wish to enroll in a political party?”, and generously provides three options (Yes – Democrat, Yes – Republican, No).  The form continues “Declaring a party enables you to vote in that party’s primary election, which is open only to party members.”

When I checked “No”, and was immediately excluded from a huge part of the electoral process, I wondered how many other Americans are disenfranchised by this rule:

  • According to Pew Research, 37% of voters in the US are registered as independent (or as Connecticut calls it, “Unaffiliated”). In CT, 37% are registered Democrat, 21% Republican and 42% “Unaffiliated”.
  • Of the 533 members of Congress, just two Senators (and not a single Representative!) are independents, and one of the independents, Joe Lieberman, considers himself an “Independent Democrat” and was Al Gore’s running mate on the Democratic ticket in 2000 and a Democratic nominee for President in 2004.
Therefore, our “representative democracy”, where 37% of the voting public consider themselves politically independent, has exactly two politically independent representatives…that’s 0.38%.

37% of the public is represented by 0.38% of Congress.

Would anyone call this a representative democracy? No wonder congressional approval ratings are hovering in the teens.

Our two party system is antiquated and for 37% of the electorate (and probably more when you include disenfranchised moderate Democrats and Republicans), it’s not working.

How do we fix this?

Eliminate party-specific primary elections – it would be a tectonic shift in our political process, but one that would pay immediate dividends in restoring our representative democracy.

Currently, in a closed primary like CT, in order to win your party’s nomination you have to be a far left Democrat or a far right Republican. Any signs of moderate views and the more “ideologically pure” candidate will accuse you of playing for the wrong team, crushing any chance of winning your parties nomination.

By the time 37% of the electorate are allowed to vote for the first time, the moderate candidates have already lost in the primary, leaving independents with a choice of a far left Democrat, a far right Republican and some poorly organized and widely disbursed independent/third party candidates. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a quality third party candidate in the race, an independents vote will always go to the lesser of two evils.

Why can’t we just have one primary election for all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, to reduce the field down to two or three candidates, and then a run-off election for those two or three candidates? Isn’t this really what a representative democracy is all about?

Some states have made progress towards this goal by permitting open primaries where independents can vote in the primaries. Currently, 21 states have open primaries for congressional elections and 33 states have open primaries for presidential elections. This is a step in the right direction, but doesn’t solve the problem as completely as removing party-specific primaries.

In his farewell address in 1796, George Washington astutely cautioned Americans about the dangers of political parties – “the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”

By removing some of the barriers that exclude moderates, independents and third parties from our electoral process, we will heed Mr. Washington’s warning and significantly improve our representative democracy.


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