Can a stronger democracy be bought?

When the MacArthur Foundation announced its intent to award $100 million to the project with the greatest potential to do social good last month, it got a lot of heads thinking. One can readily imagine the game-changing ideas in education, public health, the environment, and other important issues that will be proposed. There is one proposal, however, that in time could realize all of those worthy aims and more besides: devoting those funds to a campaign for a wide-ranging reform of the US electoral system.

With four months to go before the 2016 US presidential elections, it is not at all too early to declare the country's electoral system broken. An electoral system with partisan primaries at its foundation funnels our most divisive politicians into general elections which are run on the premise of dividing voters instead of uniting them. Once in Washington, politicians are subject to the pressures of a perpetual campaign which keeps them literally and figuratively away from working with their colleagues to find common ground on our most vital issues. The result: only 19% trust the government to do what is right always or most of the time and only about half of eligible voters cast a ballot in the last presidential election. 

Improving our electoral system is the surest means of restoring our democracy to its full potential and the best route to reform is via the states. The MacArthur's $100 million would serve as a sizable down payment towards targeted campaigns in states with the potential to get proposed reforms directly in front of voters through ballot initiatives. What specific reform comes to mind? Arguably there is none more promising than getting enough states on board to activate the National Popular Vote Compact. The compact is an agreement that states would award their electoral college votes to the winner of the national - as opposed to state - election. Ten states and the District of Columbia have already passed legislation that would go into effect if states representing 270 electoral college votes (a majority) sign on.

In the last presidential election, only 12 states were host to campaign events after the nominating conventions and attracted nearly all general election television advertising spending, according to the group that is a leading proponent of the reform. If the National Popular Vote Compact were to be activated, there would be an instant change in the tenor of our elections. They would encourage more inclusive, less partisan elections which would lead to stronger turnout; stronger turnout in turn would lead to stronger mandates for those elected to office. Backed by a more moderate electorate, long-stalled reforms would have a chance at getting passed.

The idea of direct elections enjoys broad popular support but is rarely polled: a 2007 poll by The Washington Post found that 72% approved. The issue is a regular feature in many statehouses (most recently passing the Arizona House) each term but rarely make it all the way through. While the popular vote has historically favored Democrats, there’s just as much upside for Republicans if they competed in populous states they typically avoid.

One can conservatively estimate the potential for a 4.7 million increase in turnout if the US were to adopt the national popular vote, almost the margin by which Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in 2012. This number is calculated on the basis of a simple realization: in states where there was at least one campaign event turnout in the 2012 elections was a robust 67%. In states where there was none, turnout was closer to 59%. The 4.7 million figure comes by just looking at the ten biggest states without campaign activity in the last election and assuming that they only partially come closer to the turnout in states that did receive attention.  

Based on the cost of ballot initiatives in the 2014 electoral season, an estimated $10 million would be enough to secure the signatures needed to get on the ballot of every state that allows voter initiatives. (Deadlines are all but past for this year.) This would put the compact well over the 270 Electoral College threshold if passed in every state. The remaining funds would then be put towards the actual campaign, from canvassers to TV spots, needed to get them passed. 

Voters are frustrated. Instead of resigning oneself to cynical detachment or dismay, politicians and everyday citizens alike can use the example of this election to bring forth reforms that lead to a rebirth of democracy. The MacArthur Foundation’s $100 million could go a long way to realizing these aims. Sadly, there is a catch: the MacArthur Foundation's website says that while "no sector of field is out of bounds of this competition," all proposals must have a "charitable" purpose. Politics, the greatest means to improve lives, regrettably doesn't count. 

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