Monday, February 22, 2016

So you are frustrated with the primaries...

To anyone out there who may be frustrated with how the two major political parties run their nominating processes, please remember the following:

1. Nothing in the federal or state constitutions dictates how political parties are managed. The parties are entirely free to conduct their internal affairs as they see fit. You have every right to complain if you think those affairs are managed poorly or their processes do not reflect the will of "the people", but they are under no obligation to listen to you.

2. The reason party "insiders" can control the nominating process is because they have been there for years and have accumulated the expertise and influence to either work the existing party system to their advantage or change the system to such a degree that their interests have a greater say in what goes on.

3. Systems do not change overnight, so if you are just beginning to realize 1 and 2, you have a couple of options: a) get involved in a party and put in the time and effort necessary to become an insider; b) start your own party from scratch, where you can have an immediate influence on how it is structured and what positions it campaigns on.

4. If you choose b), realize that the way our current electoral system is set up is a huge factor in why things currently are the way they are. The dominance of the two major parties is a result of how we conduct our elections. In our history "third" parties have either i) been flash-in-the-pan movements (often coalescing around a single charismatic personality) that quickly petered out, or else ii) gained such momentum that they ended up displacing one of the existing major parties. That process may take a decade or two, but then you just have two major parties again. If you choose to start a "third" party without also working to change the rules that define our electoral system (primarily single-member districts and plurality voting) the odds are overwhelming that your party will end up in category i). (How many of you remember Ross Perot?)

5. Changing those rules is a daunting, but not impossible task, and much of the work to accomplish it will need to be done at the state level. Pulling the lever for Sanders on one side or Trump on the other will not be sufficient. Neither are "insiders" and neither will be able to wield much influence over the other levels and branches of government that will need to be on board to implement their agendas. You can piss and moan all you want about this on social media, but that will not change the facts on the ground.

6. Regardless of whether you choose a) or b) above, know that it will likely take at least 20 years for your work to produce any tangible results, but either is preferable to c) staying uninvolved and uninterested in the matters that will determine what sort of life is possible for you and for future generations.

Good luck!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

On Gerrymandering and how to fix it

I've made a few Facebook posts recently about how one of the two major reforms (with the other being ranked-choice voting) that will make our government more representative and allow for a greater diversity of views is non-partisan redistricting. Congressional districts are redrawn by state legislatures every 10 years based on the results of the most recent census, and for a long time whatever party happened to control a state's chambers would draw district boundaries to maximize their ability to win future elections, a practice known as gerrymandering (after a 19th century politician from MA). Over time this has resulted in most districts being "safe" ones by lumping voters together into districts based on their partisan leanings and likelihood of voting, a process that has become more and more sophisticated and precise as the data and the computer programs analyzing it have grown exponentially. The results of this have been an average re-election rate above 90% for incumbent representatives, and the continued stranglehold of the two major parties on our electoral process through the primary system, where potential candidates are vetted by a narrow slice of extremists in both parties rather than the general voting public.

When you have district boundaries drawn to enable more competitive elections, people will correctly conclude that their individual vote will have more of an influence and will thus become more likely to vote, and may even pay more attention to the issues at stake leading up to it. So if one of your priorities is increasing voter turnout, becoming an advocate for non-partisan redistricting absolutely has to be on your plate. Since redistricting occurs at the state level, this means 50 separate efforts to make sure independent or non-partisan groups control the process when it will next take place prior to the 2022 election cycle (the first after the 2020 census is complete), but thankfully they are already underway in many states and a few have made substantial progress. Here is a good rundown on what the present condition of reform efforts are in states where they exist, and just a few days ago there was a very promising ruling from the 4th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals on a particular egregious bit of gerrymandering in North Carolina. I am hopeful that these efforts will continue to grow, even if there is not much that can be changed before the election this November, where it is almost certain that Republicans will maintain their current sizable majority.

For decades the moneyed interests and their conservative allies have been playing the long political game and are presently reaping their rewards. Progressives would do well to adopt a similar perspective and realize that transformational change will not happen overnight, nor will a single candidate, even if they become president, be enough to make it come to pass.