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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 6/8/18

Here's What America's Election Experts Think It's Going to Take to Fix Our Democracy

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As the vote counts are finalized and the dust settles on California's June 5 primary, one thing that's clear is the pre-election predictions and fears about its "top-two" system, where the two top vote getters, regardless of party, face off in the fall, were wrong.

The system, which was instituted in 2010 and backed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, was promoted as elevating more moderate candidates. The 2018 primary showed that wasn't the case. Democrats, echoing other 2018 primaries, saw swarms of grassroots-backed progressives and fewer party-backed centrists face off. Republicans saw a mix of incumbents and challengers standing with President Trump or ignoring Trump while playing up local ties. In both cases, the political middle was barren.

And the two major parties, for different reasons, thought they would be shut out of the fall ballot -- and that didn't happen either. Democrats feared too many candidates would dilute their numbers, giving the GOP a boost; Republicans feared too many Democrats would keep them from placing second. So the major parties, once again, showed they hold more sway than widely assumed, and can't be so easily dislodged.

There's a big-picture lesson in all of this for political reformers -- one that some of the nation's leading election law scholars noted at a recent Stanford Law School conference on the Constitution and Political Parties. That lesson is there is no silver bullet, or single reform, that's going to fix the anti-democratic or uglier side of our political system.

"I want to start with that, because it introduces this idea of, 'Just one more reform and we get things back. This is the next reform. We didn't tinker with the last one just right,'" said Samuel Issacharoff, NYU Law School professor of constitutional law. "Let me give a catalog of some of the reforms that many of us who think about these things have been seduced by over the years, and I include myself. I've loved each and every one of these."

Issacharoff's ensuing confession was remarkable -- and didn't even include some of the latest solutions, such as New York Times columnist David Brooks pushing multi-member congressional districts (to theoretically have more ideological diversity) and ranked-choice voting (where voters list their top choices and the second- and third-place votes for the least-successful candidates are reassigned until a majority winner appears).

"'Open primaries, not closed primaries,'" Issacharoff continued, referring to how parties in different states allow non-party members to vote in their primaries -- or don't. "That's going to start getting the broader base. That's going to make the parties more responsive than they are in general. [That will prompt] more participation, more democracy in the nominating process. That means that the citizenry will be more heavily invested" [but] what that gave rise to was the tyranny of a minority of the majority."

"More funds into the party," he said, citing another reform that might reverse the growth of outside independent spending. "Let's start relaxing the campaign contributions into the parties themselves, as opposed to pushing it out. We've heard more of that today, and I believe in that or I believed in that, I thought that was a great idea... Allow coordination, allow parties to start maintaining some discipline over the candidates. That will empower the parties again. Or 'more super-delegates,' because that is more elite control, more peer review. Or 'less super-delegates,' because that's [not] anti-democrat. I loved them all."

"The reason I raise this is, when you start having a catalog of reforms that are going to almost get you there and they keep failing, sometimes you've got to step back and say, 'What is it that we're trying to restore and what are the reasons that it is not taking hold?'" Issacharoff said.

His answer partly was to remind people that political parties existed for many reasons that are easily overlooked today -- even if there is frustration with the two major parties. They controlled the nominating process. They kept constituencies in line. They helped immigrant communities integrate into America by patronage jobs. They are the bedrock behind a functioning legislative process -- or the opposite, which can be seen as political parties are collapsing in Italy, Spain, France and India and leaving vacuums.

"That's shocking and that's the pattern across the democratic world right now. So that leaves one element that the parties play that I think we underestimate its significance. Which is parties were the mechanism of transmission of ideas, interest, and loyalty between mass institutions, non-state institutions in the society, and the political process," he said. "So that sense of the parties having some center of gravity outside the state was what gave the parties a sense of dynamism and made them responsive to the needs of the population. Once that fails, the institutional frailty of the parties becomes more and more apparent."

Issacharoff is not defending today's two major American political parties, per se. But he is asking the questions of what's their useful roles, what's not, and he's urging political reformers to look at a larger landscape than a silver-bullet solution -- as most reforms have not achieved their intended goals.

Going back to this week's top-two California primary, the final results won't be known for days because of the vote-counting process. But one thing that's clear is the voter turnout was low -- more in line with typical midterm elections than what's been seen in other states where Democrats have come out in numbers suggesting this is a blue wave year.

Another Question: Why People Vote

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Steven Rosenfeld  covers democracy issues for AlterNet. He is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and has reported for National Public Radio, Monitor Radio, Marketplace,  and many newspapers. (more...)
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