Sensible Electoral Reforms Can Address Partisan Deadlock | Notice
By Former US Representative Allyson Y. Schwartz
It is clear to many Americans that our politics have become so polarized that it is almost dysfunctional.
Elections are too often a race to the margins; legislators are more distant ideologically and compromises are more and more difficult to find. This creates a stagnation that slows the cogs of government to a halt – as in the case of the three government closings in the past decade.
More recently, Congress was unable to pass a measure enacting a bipartisan commission to examine the January 6 insurgency on the U.S. Capitol that left five dead, at least 140 injured and threatened a essential function of our democracy: to certify the results of a presidential election.
It didn’t happen on its own. It is the result of years of relentless partisanship reinforced by a divisive former president and a shattered congressional dynamic in Washington. Add to that the recently emerged model of politically motivated state election laws and you have a crisis of confidence in our governing institutions that cannot be ignored.
For those of us who have held elected office, the question is: how do we deal with this situation? How do we restore confidence in our elections and renew the confidence that, once elected, our leaders will stand up for what they believe in, while seeking the common ground necessary to serve and maintain a nation?
As we emerge more than a year from a global pandemic that has affected all of us, it is clear that we must not only rebuild our economy and our lives, we must also chart a way forward to rebuild our democracy. A recent report from FixUS, “Why is governing no longer a good policy? Reflections of a thousand years of public service ”, explore how we got to this point of crisis and what we can do to resolve it.
I have had the honor of joining former colleagues from both sides to bring my own thoughts and recommendations. Many of these ideas are not new, but they are achievable and impactful.
As I explained in the report, we must first correct the misaligned structural incentives created by our current electoral system by designing electoral districts that allow for fair representation. Too many states allow – and even encourage – what is commonly called gerrymandering. This practice made red ridings redder and blue ridings bluer, inflating the importance of primaries and primary voters. All of this ensures that the candidates who win are likely to belong to one wing of their party: the more liberal or the more conservative.
This leads to general elections in which more moderate voters have little choice. Furthermore, it is difficult for those who win to cast the difficult but necessary votes to govern as they will face the same bitter primary battle for re-election. When the primary election is the ball game, our leaders may be deterred from listening to other perspectives, allowing reasonable compromise, and governing fairly and responsibly.
To repair partisan gerrymandering, each state should establish independent, non-partisan commissions to free state and federal districts from political influence. This would result in more competitive and geographically consistent districts that are not divided strictly along partisan lines.
Fairer and less hyper-partisan ridings give elected officials a better chance to tackle major – and often politically difficult – issues like health care, climate change, criminal justice, tax reform and economic growth, to name a few.
Second, a functioning government that is truly by the people and for the people must do more to ensure that everyone has a chance to vote. We need to facilitate registration and voting.
We know that states which vote by mail have a higher turnout which does not favor one political party over the other. Allowing voters to vote at a drop-off box in the neighborhood or near a supermarket increases turnout and combats disenfranchisement. We should encourage voting, not make it more difficult.
It should force us to also reject voter suppression laws that are underway in states across the country, including here in Pennsylvania. These measures are not intended to combat “electoral fraud” or to protect the integrity of the ballot box. Rather, they are blatant efforts to suppress voting, especially from minority and low-income voters. These new laws are as shameful as they are anti-American.
Let’s learn from experience. We can make it easier to vote and we can draw constituency boundaries that represent our people and communities, instead of representing partisan political goals.
These reforms offer an important start, but it is incumbent upon all of us, as citizens, to elect leaders who will govern with decency and understanding; who will listen to other voices and who will respect our institutions and the good in general.
Our democracy depends on it.
Allyson Y. Schwartz, a Democrat, represented Pennsylvania’s 13th District from 2005 to 2015. She remains the longest-serving congresswoman in Pennsylvania history.