Fixing America's "Rigged" Political System

Add Frank Islam as Co-author.

Throughout the primary and general election campaigns, Donald Trump constantly carped and complained about our rigged political system.

The truth is that the system is not rigged in terms of illegal voting or vote tampering. That’s not to say that there is not an occasional violation at the ballot box or voting machine. But, that is the exception rather than the rule.

On the other hand, to put it in sailing parlance, the rigging of America’s political ship of state and states is not always as fair and balanced as it could or should be. That’s true in terms of: the electoral college election process; the design of electoral districts; and, the rules for voter participation.

Electoral College Election Process

In a 2012 tweet, Donald Trump declared, “The electoral college is a disaster for democracy.”

In 2016, given the results of this national election - in which it appears Hillary Clinton will win the popular vote by two million but lose the Electoral College vote to Trump 306 to 232 – we are inclined to agree with President-elect Trump’s assessment.

Trump does not agree with his own assessment now, however. He recently sent out a tweet to that effect. Trump will be pleased to live with this “disaster” and we will have to as well because those are the rules of the American electoral system.

Under the current American electoral system, 538 electors in the Electoral College from 50 states (435 electors based upon the number of U.S. Representatives and 100 electors based upon the number of U.S. Senators) and the District of Columbia (3 electors) select the President and the Vice President.

The system may not be “rigged” but the rigging is not quite right for a variety of reasons including the following: It gives supremacy to the states over the individual voters in determining who will be the President of the United State. It gives disproportionate influence to the smaller states in selecting the President. It gives the states complete latitude to determine how electors are selected and votes are allocated.

The origin of these reasons can be traced back to the Connecticut Compromise at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 which resulted in representation in the House of Representatives based on the population of a state and two senators from each state regardless of population. Combine that with Amendment 10 in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution which “reserves” the powers not delegated to the United States under the Constitution “to the states respectively or to the people” and one can see the framework for the rigging.

Given this historical connection and the position of power that it can give to a minority over the majority in determining election results, it is unlikely that the Electoral College election process will ever be replaced with a direct national vote – reformed perhaps by doing something like allocating electors by a vote within a state such as is done in Maine and Nebraska rather than as “winner take all” which is done by all other states - but never replaced.

Maybe after this “historic” election, reform will possible. Or, perhaps as alderman Paddy Bauler said about Chicago after Richard J. Daley was elected mayor in 1955, “The electoral college ain’t ready for reform yet.

We’ll see what happens going forward. The Electoral College might be a “disaster”. But, it’s our disaster and as noted above, we just might have to live with it.

Design of Electoral Districts

While there has been little activity focused on reforming the electoral college, there has been quite a bit of attention focused on the design of the U.S. Congressional districts and the legislative districts within each state.

These districts are redrawn every 10 years based upon new census data. The goal for this process is supposed to be to ensure fair and equal representation across and among districts.

In most instances, however, it is the state legislatures that redraw the district lines. This is where the rigging comes in on this part of the political system through gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is redistricting by the party in power to try to make the electoral districts as partisan as possible and to guarantee more wins for itself. Gerrymandering is nothing new. It dates back almost to the establishment of the democracy.

Patrick Henry and the anti-federalists drew the boundaries of a district in Virginia to try to keep future President James Madison from winning a congressional seat there. They were unsuccessful.

Because of sophisticated algorithms and software mapping tools, that would not be the case today. As evidenced by the fact that in 2016 only around 10% of the 435 House races were deemed to be competitive before the election, the redrawing of district lines which used to be an art is now a science.

This partisan science is practiced on the congressional districts in every state except the ten single congressional member states and Idaho, Washington, California, Arizona and New Jersey which have bi-partisan commissions and Iowa which has its civil-servants do the redistricting.

Common Cause has been in the forefront of trying to eliminate politicians giving themselves and/or their parties an “unfair advantage” by working and advocating for the creation of “fair districts” through means such as “independent commissions, non-partisan state staff, or clear Constitutional rules for how lines should be drawn.”

Another independent group called FairVote states that “the literature generally indicates that redistricting reforms, including independent redistricting commissions, have only small impacts on electoral outcomes.” Its alternative solution to redrawing lines is to use ranked choice voting/instant runoff for candidates.

FairVote points out that the ranked choice voting approach is being used by several cities in states across the nation. It is not used currently in any “standard statewide election”. It was on ballot in Maine this year and was approved for races including the U.S. Senate and Congress by a vote of 52% to 48%.

We are not certain whether the correct answer is the Common Cause approach, the FairVote approach, or some combination. We are certain that the current rigging for redistricting in each state while legal may not always be fair.

That needs to change. All the eligible citizens in each state deserve fair districts.

Rules for Voter Participation

All the eligible citizens in each state also deserve the chance to vote and to make their voices heard. They need the opportunity for voter expression rather than voter suppression.

Unfortunately, in the past two national election cycles, there has been far more emphasis at that state level placed on constraining voter’s rights rather than on enhancing their participation.

The 2011-2012 timeframe was an incredibly ugly one in terms of the attempts to restrict voter participation by tightening voting laws. According to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, there were over 180 proposed laws passed in 41 states. But, as courts intervened, the new rules covered voters in only 13 states as many of the more onerous – and probably illegal – conditions were struck down.

The most common new laws that stood up include reduced time for early voting, restricting the activities of groups doing voter registration, tightened voter identification requirements and tougher rules for ex-convicts.

In June of 2013, the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that determines which states must get permission before changing their laws. The Court said some progress had been made but that discrimination still existed and threw the ball back into Congress’ court to make the determination as to which sates should be subjected to federal oversight.

Shortly after that states like North Carolina, Texas and Mississippi rushed to implement tougher voting requirements such as voter IDs and fewer early voting dates that had been stalled pending the Court’s decision.

Then, in this 2016 election cycle, the voter participation legal dramas played out again on a state by state basis. As David Leonhardt of the New York Times pointed out in his election day article titled, “The Real Voter Fraud”,

Thousands of citizens have needed intervention from federal judges in the last several weeks to vote. Even more remarkably, a few million adult Americans will be denied the right to vote this year.

The rigging of the political system in the area of voter participation is probably the most unfair act of all. It denies Americans the chance to exercise their basic right and responsibility in this democracy.

To sum it up and to reiterate, the American political system may not be rigged but the rigging in the critical areas that we have discussed is not fully fair and impartial in terms of its design and/or application. Is it any wonder that so many citizens hold the system and those politicians involved with it in such low regard?

The preamble to our Constitution begins with the words, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…”. 240 years after those words were written, we continue to work on forming that more perfect union.

Making it “more perfect” at this point in time demands that we change the rigging of our existing political system to make it fair and responsive to all American citizens and not just the few. When that is done, we can say with pride, “The American political system is rigged. It is rigged for we the people.”

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