Tuesday, November 09, 2004

US electoral reform

In the wake of the US election, thoughts are naturally turning to electoral reform. Kevin Drum considers the fact that less than twenty of the 435 congressional seats are competitive, and urges an end to gerrymandering (essentialy, gaming electoral boundaries to magnify the effects of a small preference into a huge one, by "packing, stacking, and cracking"). But that seems to be only part of the problem.

Consider the oft-raised Republican canard of "voter fraud". I know of no other western democracy where it is an issue - not because we tolerate it, but because we have strong and robust processes for detecting and prosecuting it, coupled with a political culture that it is simply unacceptable to win by cheating. Which part of this is the US missing?

Likewise, I know of no other western democracy where voters have to queue for nine hours in order to vote.

Many of these problems seem to stem from fragmentation of electoral law and processes. There will be a certain amount of that in any federal system, but when things like ballot design or the voting process vary from county to county within a state, then something is seriously wrong.

Given the diversity of the United States, these problems will not exist everywhere, but the point is that they should not exist anywhere. And fixing them is relatively trivial: requiring that each state, within its borders, uses one process and one ballot format for all federal elections (meaning that the presidential ballot papers look identical whereever you live within a state, while the congressional ones vary by district; if the state or county want to run other elections at the same time, they can do them on a different ballot paper), has a unified electoral roll, and properly resources their election authorities. How hard can it be?

As for gerrymandering, again serious democracies have their electoral boundaries set by independent commissions according to defined rules (to do with electoral size and not needlessly separating "communities of interest"). This does not mean an end to safe seats - some will exist by geography alone - but it does mean an end to their political creation. Of course, the real solution is to adandon single-member districts for multi-member STV (which ensures minority representation), but I can't imagine people who think that FPP was given to them by God going for that. Unfortunately, while the federal government has the power to set regulations here (and even to change the electoral system used), there's a strong presumption that it should be left to the states (that "government of states, not of people" problem again). Which means any move for change really has to come at that level, not at the federal level.