Commentary: Our polarized country needs changes in the way our elections are conducted

These are scary times. One thing that the 2020 election season has determined is that our “democracy” is a mess. Voting has been called into question by the president, who also says that he won’t necessarily step down if he loses. Many states seem to see success as limiting the number of people who can vote. Fewer and fewer congressional districts are competitive due to gerrymandering, leading to a polarization of the two major political parties that is broadly felt among Americans.

A poll cited by USA Today indicates that nearly half of Americans (47 percent) do not expect the election to “be fair and honest.” More than half say that they expect they won’t “generally agree on who is the legitimately elected president,” and 56 percent said that they expect to see “an increase in violence as a result of the election.”

Many blame social media and the influence of money in politics, but these are mere symptoms of the disease. The United States has fundamental flaws in how elections are constituted. Let’s be clear: The United States is not a democracy. When President Trump said at the beginning of the recent presidential debate in answer to a question on choosing a jurist for the Supreme Court that “I tell you very simply that we won the election, elections have consequences, we have the Senate, we have the White House,” he was not talking about the ballots cast by the people of the United States, who cast 3,000,000 more votes for Hillary Clinton than for him.

He was talking about the Electoral College, a group of 538 people representing the 50 states, of whom 304 voted for Trump. The Electoral College was established by the 1787 Constitutional Convention to give more power to states than people in the election of the president as a way to ensure that southern slave states would support the Constitution.

The US Senate is also undemocratic in its elections. Democratic candidates together outpoll Republicans by millions of votes in the aggregate. Pundits dispute how many millions of votes, as California has had general elections for the US Senate that did not have Republican candidates*, but even without California, there are millions more votes for the Democratic candidates. In the 2018 Senate elections, Democrats lost two seats despite outpolling Republicans by at least six million votes.

So Democrats have reasons to be angry. A Senate and a president, “elected” by a minority of voters, has moved the country in a radical direction. Republicans are angry because they perceive that the election may be rigged by the deep state, the media, and/or mail-in ballots. If our country is to survive in a less polarized milieu, we need to make changes. A good starting point would be to take a look at the recommendations by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. The Academy spent the last two years working with a national group of experts and conducted many “listening sessions” with people around the country to come up with an analysis of the problems with our electoral processes, and possible solutions. I will give a short summary, but you can read the entire report at amacad.org/ourcommonpurpose/recommendations.

They are:

• Enlarge the House of Representatives and make larger districts with multiple representatives per district. Congressional representatives used to grow in number with increased population until that was stopped by Congress in 1929. Repealing this law would allow the Congress to expand, creating greater opportunity for more people to know their congressional representatives. Repealing a 1967 law would allow multiple representatives in larger districts.

• Establish ranked-choice voting in all federal elections as a way to force winning candidates to appeal to a broader population.

• Establish independent citizen-redistricting commissions to draw congressional districts, eliminating gerrymandered districts, such as in North Carolina, where Republicans won the congressional popular vote by two percent but won ten of the state’s 13 seats.

• Amend the Constitution to authorize the regulation of election contributions, and pass campaign finance disclosure laws so that there is transparency in all political donations.

• Pass clean election laws that enhance the power of small donations, such as democracy vouchers and public matching donations.

• Establish 18-year terms for Supreme Court justices in staggered fashion.

All but the constitutional amendment for regulating election contributions can be done by the Congress and/or state legislatures. All we need is to elect people who have the political will.

*California primary elections place all candidates from all parties on one ballot, with the two highest vote getters advancing to the final election. Both final candidates for the US Senate in 2018 were Democrats, therefore both candidates’ votes would be considered Democratic votes, greatly increasing the aggregate Democratic vote. As a result, California’s Senate votes were removed from the total vote count.

Bill Walczak lives in Dorchester and is a columnist for the Reporter. He is the co-founder and past president/CEO of Codman Square Health Center.