Asst. Opinion Editor Patrick Healy
When I was in middle school, I overheard someone in my family talking about the virtues of small government. I chimed in that I thought there were too many politicians, that we’d save money and be just as well off by cutting their number down. Of course, I was told that the size of government referred to its budget and bureaucracy, not the number of officials, but I’ve always been sympathetic to calls for government streamlining.
With four or five levels of government — federal, state, county, city/town, maybe village — and often different departments — legislative, executive, judicial — to be voted on, each voter has dozens of elected representatives. Most people don’t know which district they live in, let alone the representative for that district. This isn’t to say we should institute voter knowledge tests and block those who fail from voting, and it’s definitely not to declare that the biggest problem in our society is ignorance (I’ll leave that to Washington Post columnists).
I’m saying that our system of district representation is confusing and costly. It’s confusing because even a savvy voter can’t always remember who or what they voted for. It’s costly because corruption loves confusion; when money is the only way for candidates to differentiate themselves, the candidate who represents monied interests the most is at a distinct advantage.
Proportional at-large elections, where each party is given the percentage of seats in the legislature equal to the percentage of votes they earned, are clearer and cheaper.
At-large elections are clearer because they narrow choices from between hundreds of candidates to a few parties. Voters can’t get to know every candidate, so party identification is the best way to quickly and accurately understand their general governing philosophy. It’s a lot easier to keep track of six relatively unchanging parties instead of the dozens of different candidates that flood the ballot every year.
At-large elections are cheaper because they lessen corruption; advertising makes little difference in the mind of a decided voter, so parties and candidates with more money won’t have as much of an advantage. This wouldn’t save money, per se, but it could divert legislative attention from the needs of elites to the needs of voters, hopefully shifting government resources from the former to the latter.
Yes, candidates currently have Ds and Rs alongside their names, but with only two choices, it’s still very difficult for voters to know what candidates stand for. It’s common for Republicans to pack the airwaves with commercials labeling their Democratic opponent a socialist, or for Democrats to do the same in calling Republicans Trump sycophants.
Voters are right to be worried about whether, for example, a Democrat might be a Bernie Sanders disciple or a Joe Biden-esque centrist, and that indecision might lead them to vote Republican to be safe. In general, D/R labels still leave a lot of room for uncertainty and its attendant advertising money.
Because state legislatures can gerrymander districts, party strength in even the ostensibly representative House of Representatives can diverge from the actual support for each party.
At-large parties are more accountable to public opinion than gerrymandered representatives because the former reps compete with each other to gain every last vote, no matter its location in the legislature’s jurisdiction, whereas a district representative needs just the support of a simple majority in their district, rendering votes above a majority in each district superfluous.
Most multi-party countries have about six parties represented in the legislature. In addition to existing third parties, the Democrats and Republicans could be split into maybe four groups: progressives, centrists, evangelicals, and nationalists (obviously I’ve painted in broad strokes). Instead of relying on commercials, and perhaps a little research into voting records to divine what type of Democrat or Republican a candidate is, voters should know exactly what each party/candidate stands for.
Voters can trek to the polling place each year and vote for the same party over and over — or, if you read last week, we could just count party registrations — diminishing the power of advertising (read as money) to sway voters. Parties should be able to fill their seats with people who vote as a bloc and who vote exactly as their party platform says they will. How each party selects candidates is up to them — they could hold primaries, conventions or simply select the most senior members.
The justification of party control over members uses the same logic as a sports league. When teams face each other in a match, they submit to the same rules and referees, but they are free to choose which players and what style they use. When parties faced each other in an election, they would submit to the same rules (time and place of elections) and referees (poll workers), but they are free to choose which candidates and what platform they use.
A common argument trotted out to defend the district system is that it gives each voter an official directly responsible to voters. The problem is that having a single person be accountable to me means nothing when that person represents so many people that I can’t contact them and be able to expect a response or even know that they personally read it.
A significant drawback to district elections are their susceptibility to district-specific interests, such as defense contractors and other businesses that rely on national defense spending. There is an excellent 2015 Bloomberg Government study called “Defense Contract Spending: A State-by-State Analysis” that breaks down defense spending by Congressional district. The study shows how every representative has an individual incentive to protect the defense budget regardless of actual concern for national security.
Any representative who does vote against defense spending is labeled a job killer, and there are many employees and powerful corporations who would be sure to support their opponent. At-large elections remove the electoral underpinnings of the military-industrial complex, potentially allowing a party to vote against defense spending without being tied to specific job losses in the wasteful and often pointless defense industry.
This is related to pork barrel spending, yet another problem with district elections, where legislators are promised spending in their district in exchange for their vote. This might be okay if every legislator had equal opportunity for funding, but they don’t. Majority leaders and committee chairs hold immense power, and their needs are met first. This encourages voters to vote for incumbents since they can accumulate seniority and its attendant power, which is — hear me out — yet another problem with district elections.
Transforming Congress into a multi-party body would either require individual state action (to institute at-large elections for their own representatives) or an amendment. Transforming the New York State legislature, on the other hand, appears more tenable. For one, New York voters generally lean progressive and are probably more open to structural change.
Second, New York’s constitution is apparently fifteen times easier to amend than the federal constitution. It’s been amended, on average, 1.5 times per year since its inception, compared to the roughly .1 annual amendments for the U.S. Constitution. It requires a simple majority in the Assembly and in the Senate, and then a simple majority of voters in the next election.
One big problem is Albany’s increasing hostility toward third parties. The city recently passed a law forcing third parties to receive at least 130,000 votes to be cast for that party in both the presidential and gubernatorial (governor) elections in order to remain on the ballot, effectively throwing most off of the ballot for years to come. The two main parties were always going to be hostile toward reform, but I imagine enough politicians would find it politically wise to accede to popular demand if there was enough support for reform.
To put it simply, there would be no more Senate and Assembly districts. I guess we could keep both houses around, though I think bicameral legislatures are old-fashioned and pointless. Regardless, a party that earned X% of the vote would earn X% of seats in each house. It’s possible to keep districts around while still getting a proportional result (open-list proportional representation), and I’m definitely open to it, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll assume parties choose members (closed-list PR).
A concern with changing our own party system is that we won’t be able to participate in national primaries for president. There’s a pretty easy, though constitutionally questionable, fix: open primaries. Voters could vote in a single presidential primary, Democrat or Republican, even if they weren’t a member of that party. It’s possible that a random federal court would see open primaries as violating the First Amendment’s freedom of association and consequently strike them down, but we’d have to implement the system to find out.
There’s not much to risk here. We could loosen the Democrats’ iron grip on Albany and their control over the upcoming gerrymandering festival known as decennial district apportionment. Nobody benefits from the political stagnation of one-party control. Democratic voters prefer it to split government, but the lack of competition hurts them as well as Republican voters because neither party has much incentive to pay close attention to citizen wants and needs.
Democrats rarely vote Republican, but they might vote Green if they could. Democrats would again have to compete for demographics that never vote for Republicans but might vote for Greens. These Green voters could still participate in national politics because they could vote in the (presumably) Democratic primary.
Opponents of at-large elections say that they dilute the power of racial minorities. This may be true in two-party at-large elections, but if there was a demand for a minority-specific party in a multi-party system, one could pop up. The party could hold primaries to select minority candidates or it could choose simply to seat popular minority politicians with the seats it earns.
Either way, a party would be incentivized to cater to a demand for that in order to earn more votes. Instead of taking certain demographics for granted, as the Democrats and Republicans do now, they would have to compete for them with other left- or right-leaning parties, respectively.
There are also other solutions, particularly if we used “open-list” voting, so I’m not worried that at-large elections would diminish representation for minorities. In fact, the lack of gerrymandering might increase their representation.
Ideally, the overall government structure would resemble a parliamentary as well as proportional system, where the governor would be selected by the majority coalition in the legislature, but that’s not necessary to gain the benefits of a multi-party system. Democrats would probably retain most of their seats, and their “missing” seats would be filled mostly by left-leaning parties, but they would have to compete for a majority or form a coalition with other parties.
To recap — TLDR in young-person speak — at-large elections and open primaries allow New York State (or any state for that matter) voters to have a multi-party system while still participating in the two-party system for federal elections. Transitioning to a multi-party system under these conditions carries no political cost, plus it could cause a snowball effect where enough states that implement it at the local level might lead to its adoption federally.