Getting it done

PR would take a bipartisan deal.

It is now clear that important thinkers have endorsed the idea of proportional representation. One even accepts the possibility of a multi-party chamber.

No doubt, some of this support is due to the fact that Democrats may need proportional voting. Their votes are now so geographically concentrated that, even with a popular vote exceeding Obama’s 2008 performance, they may not carry the House next week. The question is how you pass PR in a party-line world. Spoiler: you probably need Republican votes and therefore to mandate low nomination barriers.

In an older world, a referendum majority was sufficient to pass PR at the city level — provided state government had granted home rule. (How that happened remains a mystery, but others have written about the role of third parties in extracting woman suffrage or direct democracy from hostile state legislators and/or party organizations.) The types of people who wanted PR typically did not command that majority. So, they would make deals with the city’s minority party. Or, if they were that minority party, they would reach out to the non-dominant faction of the city’s majority party. In either case, PR’s typical price was a bipartisan deal.

At the federal level, you need to repeal 2 U.S.C., section 2c of the Uniform Congressional District Act. This is the 1967 law that mandates single-seat districts. Among other obstacles (e.g., staunch support for majority-minority districts in the voting-rights-legal and redistricting-consultant communities), any such change would require majorities in the House and Senate.

Assume (just for argument) that Democrats do take the House and Senate. If (1) a Democrat becomes President, (2) Democratic congressional majorities persist into that presidency, and (3) the sorts of intraparty disagreements we saw in 1993 do not re-emerge — all good. Single-seat districts are toast.

But what if there is a Republican president? Or a Democrat who repeats Bill Clinton’s performance? Then you need two thirds in each chamber, and that means Republican votes.

Or what if there is trouble in a Democratic congressional majority? Again, that means Republican votes.

Where would Republican votes come from? Certainly not the dominant wing of the party. If one could engineer this sort of roll — and that’s a big “if” in this polarized world — the votes would be coming from those who fear primaries. Hopefully before they lose those next primaries.

So, assume (again for argument) that a Democratic (super)majority has Republican votes from those who fear their party’s dominant wing. That puts us back in 1914, when the decision was made to have candidate-centered PR. Rather than take the European path, American reformers settled on an institutional package that reduced party influence in several ways: the ranking of ballots across party lines, nomination via petition, formally nonpartisan races, running with whatever party label(s) you wanted, etc. The point of all this was to remove party influence over the nomination process. Today, that could be the price of Republican votes. While I doubt we will see many of these practices come back, the current proposal is in the same spirit: party primaries with low PR thresholds. (Interestingly, this was part of the proposal that lost in March 1913 in Los Angeles, spurring the turn to explicitly nonpartisan options.)

More could be said, especially about whether voting-rights fears are founded, a later decision to convert adoption coalitions into “good government parties,” their (potential) role in realigning state parties, and whether there exists in modern politics the potential for “connected coalition.” I’ll try to get to it later.

2 thoughts on “Getting it done”

  1. Wait, what? “It will take bipartisanship” is based solely on your assumption that Democrats will not have a trifecta (House, Senate, WH) and the will to reform. I’d say that, while it’s far from certain, a trifecta in 2021 or 2023 is far more likely than a bipartisan willingness to work together on reform. “Moderate” Republicans are dropping like flies already, from both primaries and Democratic wins. To bet them holding the balance of power in 2021 seems crazy to me, AND being willing to support proportional representation… either one of those things would be a stretch, and both is crazy.

    1. The post you read addresses the 1993 trifecta, as well as the declining share of GOP moderates. I do not address another recent trifecta, that of 2009.

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