Lijphart on Fixing American Democracy


Arend Lijphart is perhaps the foremost authority in the world on comparative electoral systems. He was born in the Netherlands but has spent his entire career in the United States. His recent conference paper, Polarization and Democratization, published in Solutions to Political Polarization in America, provides some guidance on how to fix our system:

My diagnosis of the polarization problem is that it reveals a serious democratic deficit in the United States and the need for far-reaching democratization. Most of my proposals are radical in American, but not in comparative terms.

His first proposal is to abolish primary elections:

There is broad agreement that the primary system fosters extremism, because primary elections tend to have low turnout and the more committed and ideologically extreme voters are much more likely to turn out to vote than more moderate voters. if primaries are the problem, one logical solution is to get rid of them and to return the function of nominating candidates for office to the formal party organizations. Because primaries were originally instituted to make the political system more democratic [note: this argument is not historically accurate], the proposal to abolish them looks undemocratic. What has happened, however, is that low levels of voter participation have made primaries a means for small minorities, especially more extreme minorities, to wield undue — and undemocratic — influence. Moreover, it is hard to argue that elections without prior primary elections are undemocratic because no other democracy has anything similar to American primaries.

Without primary elections, and with reasonably free access to the ballot, you need a mechanism to insure majority rule (in a single member district): either a run-off election (as currently exists in a few Southern states, because of their history of one-party rule), or an instant run-off: a ballot where voters rank choices, so that if a voter’s first choice is a clear loser, the voter is not a loser, but can have his or her vote moved to his next-favorite choice. Either of these mechanisms eliminates the “spoiler” problem that can frustrate the will of the majority. Lijphart endorses ranked choice voting (and agrees that Fairvote’s “top four” proposal is a reasonable alternative, although I think it is inferior, in part because turnout is higher with fewer elections, and ranked choice requires only one).

Lijphart points out that the Republicans were the “spurious winner” in the 2012 House elections — in that they had 1.4 million fewer votes than Democrats but still had a majority of seats. To fix the problem, “Congress could take action to prevent gerrymandering by mandating impartial commissions to draw election districts in each state or ideally by establishing a single national commission, and the courts could put constraints on excesses of partisan gerrymandering” (emphasis added). Lijphart also notes that polarization is more of a minority rule problem: if the Democrats had received their due majority of seats, “The Republicans would have still been the same extreme right-wing party, but it would not have mattered much: there would have been no or much less gridlock and no threats to shut down the government or to default on the country’s debt.”

For U.S. House elections, Lijphart advocates proportional representation, the most common electoral system worldwide, since it is designed to fairly and accurately represent the diverse views of the voters in the legislature. He adds, “Getting rid of plurality SMD [single member districts] would not be a radical move in comparative terms: among the advanced industrial democracies, only the United Kingdom and Canada still use this electoral system.” I would further add that even our neighbors in South and Central America that have elected presidents (not prime ministers selected by a parliament) as we do, almost all use proportional representation for legislative elections.

Still, I think proportional representation in U.S. elections is a secondary goal that can be tackled after we have normalized non-official parties, particularly by easing ballot access, abolishing primaries, instituting a majority requirement, drawing fair district lines, and making voter registration automatic. These reforms could all be achieved in one go, at least for national elections, through a new Federal Elections Board, as I have proposed. Once there are multiple parties, the inherent flaws in non-proportional elections will reveal themselves. For example, election results in New Zealand that led to the losing party winning a majority of seats led directly to the reform of that county’s electoral system. Similarly, the Liberal Party in Canada has pledged to change election systems after a decade of Conservative rule supported by only a minority of the voters.

Lijphart also recommends PR for Senate elections, and possibly along with increasing the number of Senators per state. However, since the Constitution specifies that each state is to have exactly two senators, and that they are not elected at the same time, either of these changes would require a constitutional amendment, and are thus non-starters for the foreseeable future. (However, increasing the number of members of the House, which was frozen at 435 in 1913, is a worthwhile reform that could be accomplished by an act of Congress.)

He also proposes to reduce the disproportionate power of small states in the Senate. He acknowledges that this “problem is harder to solve because the U.S. Constitution sets the equal representation of all states, large and small, in unamendable stone.” He also proposes full voting rights for the District of Columbia – which would make the problem worse in terms of disproportionate power in the Senate for DC compared to large states like California, but in political terms it would offset the Republican hold on (many) small states and their senators. However, full representation in Congress for DC would probably require a constitutional amendment, which makes it a non-starter, given the enormous political hurdles to formally amending the U.S. Constitution. However another option–if a future Democratic majority is willing to play Constitutional Hardball to match the Republican’s mastery of that game–is to gain Democratic-leaning Senators by admitting Puerto Rico as a state and by dividing California into two states, North and South, doubling the number of senators it would be entitled to. While both of these options would be politically difficult, they are within the realm of the possible, since they would require only a simple majority in Congress and the support of the state or Commonwealth.

Lijphart also proposes the following reforms:

  • abolish the filibuster rule in the Senate;
  • make voter registration a government responsibility, as is the more usual practice around he world;
  • make voting mandatory (although voters could exercise the option not to vote, but would still have to go to the polls);
  • if it is not possible to get support for mandatory voting, provide a lottery for voters, to create an incentive to vote;
  • provide “nationwide rules for voter registration and other election rules” to eliminate Republican efforts to suppress voters, “a unique American phenomenon — and one more deficiency of American democracy” due to the “decentralized system of election administration”;
  • provide public financing of elections;
  • make the Supreme Court more balanced and less partisan, perhaps by emulating the German Constitutional Court, which has 16 justices who serve 12-year terms with a mandatory retirement age of 68.

In terms of the possibility of reform, Lijphart repeats that his suggestions “are radical only in American terms, not in comparison with the democratic rules in almost all other advanced industrial democracies.” Complete details about the way U.S. democracy is different can be foundi n a book Lijphart co-authored in 2014 comparing the U.S. to 30 other democracies (A Different Democracy: American Government in a Thirty-one-country Perspective). He highlights the need to start talking about these issues:

Moreover, the premature conclusion that these basic reforms are not feasible becomes a self-fulfilling prediction: if we do not even try, we are certain to fail! What is needed is a concerted effort by both Democrats (capital D) and democrats (lowercase d) to highlight the democratic deficiencies of the current political system. It is difficult to understand why there is so little of this effort. Why has the Democratic Party not been more vocal in pointing out the undemocratic outcome of the 2012 House election . . . ?

It is indeed difficult to understand when one is familiar with how other countries run elections and how ours fail to measure up. However, too many Americans — even liberal, progressive, or radical political activists — are only vaguely aware of the undemocratic features of our system and are even less aware of how they came to be and how they could conceivably be fixed from within the political system itself. And thus the reason for this website.

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