Dean Craig Mertler that I began to really wonder about all the questions we do not ask our kids to wrestle with. Because there might be value in a 17-year-old working on: "Reforming the Electoral College: The students will, as a whole class, debate the Electoral College; examining the merits and problems associated with the current system and each of the proposed reforms. The students will propose an amendment to the Constitution to reform the system and vote on it as a class," or a 13-year-old practicing: "The voting process: (Common Core - SS 7 C 2 7 Conduct a mock election to demonstrate the voting process and its impact on a school, community, or local level). The students will run for student council elections. They will campaign for themselves and create a brochure providing information about themselves and why their peers should vote for them," but I think our students are not just capable of much more, I think they need much more if they are going to be effective citizens of this nation, and this world, in this century.
(1) Why do Americans vote the way we do? Should we continue to do that?
This is a question I keep begging educators to engage with, because how we vote largely determines how we are governed, and in a global century the ignorance of Americans about democracy around the world - even around their own nation - is both absurd and dangerous.
|An Irish General Election Ballot, choosing five "TDs" - members of the legislature|
by ranking candidates in preference order.
"The main reason for America's majoritarian character is the electoral system for Congress. Members of Congress are elected in single-member districts according to the "first-past-the-post" (FPTP) principle, meaning that the candidate with the plurality of votes is the winner of the congressional seat. The losing party or parties win no representation at all. The first-past-the-post election tends to produce a small number of major parties, perhaps just two, a principle known in political science as Duverger's Law. Smaller parties are trampled in first-past-the-post elections."—from Sachs' The Price of Civilization, 2011
|First Past the Post Voting with three parties gets confusing. The inner|
circle in this graph shows percentage of the votes British parties
received in the last general election, the outer ring shows the
percentage of seats won in Parliament.
A few US states - Louisiana is one - use the "French" system of runoff elections for some offices, requiring a majority win. But in most elections in the United States, the more parties, the fewer votes one needs to be elected.
In Canada, for example, in the last election, the Conservative Party received 39.68% of the votes against four left-of-center parties (Liberals, New Democrats, Parti Quebecois, Greens) yet ended up as the "majority" party in Parliament with 53% of the seats in a nation in which over 60% of voters strongly disagree with their policies.
In other words, choice is discouraged. If there were just two Canadian parties - as the US has - the Conservatives would not have won a Canadian election since 1988.
But what might happen if we had multi-member-constituencies with "proportional representation" ("PR")? What if we had, as Ireland does, "transferrable votes"? What are the implications - what else changes - if we chose another electoral system? Get your students talking.
Download Electoral Design Handbook.
(2) Should it be easier to get on the ballot everywhere in America?
Does democracy require choice? Who gets to limit what your choices are in an election? In Pennsylvania a group called the Pennsylvania Ballot Access Coalition says they (like many in other American states) are, "seeking more choices for all of us on Election Day. Current Pennsylvania law makes it difficult for independent and minor party candidates to appear on the ballot — much more difficult than in most other states. The result is less political competition, less political dialog, and fewer choices to vote for in November. The current system is simply not fair and does a great disservice to the ideal of democracy and to the voters. In 2006, independent and minor party candidates were required to collect over 67,000 valid signatures simply to get on the state-wide ballot in Pennsylvania on Election Day. Legally, Democratic and Republican candidates require no signatures to get on the state-wide ballot, and even the 2,000 signatures required for the Primary Day ballot are ridiculously smaller than the virtually impossible hurdle of 67,000." So, first question, should it be easier to get your name on the ballot because you say you are a "Republican" instead of saying that you are "Green" or a "Socialist"?
|Voters in Israel pick between 18 political parties (Wikipedia Photo), what are your choices?|
Limited ballot access in the United States is a battle without traditional dividing lines, with everybody from the Green Party to Michelle Bachmann weighing in, from Oklahoma to Georgia, and the inconsistency of these laws mean you may not have the same choices as your neighbors a hundred miles away. As USA Today says, "It is a quirk of American democracy: Your choices for president depend on which state you live in."
(3) Should all votes be counted in every election?
West Virginia, and many other states, refuses to count the choices of many voters: "Only votes for official write-in candidates will be counted" says their website. And an "official" write-in candidate is one who, "submits a Write-In Candidate's Certificate of Announcement to the proper filing officer."
Why would there be a law like this? A law which also has a date limit on when someone can become a "write-in" candidate?
Let's begin with the "ridiculous" - suppose a whole bunch of people decided to write in "Mickey Mouse" or "Bart Simpson," is that "joke voting" or "throwing their vote away" or might it suggest a deep unease about available candidates which should be recorded?
Or, what if people chose to write-in the name of someone who had not chosen to become an "official" candidate? Surely that person has the right to refuse office if elected, but shouldn't voters be allowed that choice?
And finally, let's consider this situation. In my county in Michigan about half the people on the ballot are running unopposed. It is pretty much a one party community (like the old Soviet Union). But what if the only candidate on the ballot dies eight days before the election? (Michigan has a formula for a candidate dying under 7 days before election day )Or gets arrested for robbing a bank? Voters where I live are then deprived of any choices at all.
It gets worse, if you run a write-in campaign ("officially") in a party primary, you can win that election but not get on the general election ballot because you did not get "enough" votes according to th state ["if the office involved appears on a partisan primary ballot, a write-in candidate is nominated to the office if he or she 1) receives more votes than any other candidate seeking nomination to the position and 2) meets a vote threshold provided under Michigan election law. (MCL 168.582)]. If a write in candidate gets three votes and nobody else gets more than two, doesn't that mean he or she won the election?
And in seven US states, write-in votes for President are prohibited!
(4) How many people should be in the US House of Representatives? How many in your state legislature? City Council?
Wikipedia has attempted to list legislatures by size:
|People's Republic of China||Nation-state||1,333,370,000||2,987||—||2,987|
| Democratic Republic
of the Congo
So, is the United States Congress too big or too small? You might ask students to start doing some math to begin. How many people are represented by one member of the United Kingdom's House of Commons (62,000,00/650) vs the US House of Representatives (310,000,000/435)? How does that compare to Germany (82,000,000/622) or France (65,000,000/577) or, say Ireland (4,600,000/166)?
How does that compare to your state legislature? To your County or City government? Each "TD" in Ireland represents about 27,000 people, each member of the New York City Council represents 159,000 people. Each member of the Michigan State Senate represents 238,000 people, but each member of New Hampshire House of Representatives represents just 2,350 people - or far less than the members of most local American Boards of Education.
Consider all that this implies. If I, as a candidate, need to get to the voters of a New Hampshire district I could probably drive around and meet almost every voter, but if I want to be in the Michigan Senate I probably need to spend a lot of money on radio, mailings, phone calls, perhaps even television. If I need to spend money I need to either be rich, or I need to have lots of rich friends, or I need to promise things to lots of rich people. None of that is necessary in New Hampshire, where the legislature meets part time and members are paid $250.00 annually. Will that difference allow differing kids of members to get elected?
Who benefits when a legislature is smaller? Who benefits when a legislature is larger? How does size impact function? In what ways? Many questions...
(5) What would happen if the US Electoral College no longer included electors for Senators?
Simple question: Right now each state's electoral vote is based on the number of members of congress - representatives plus senators. What if it was just based in the number of members of the House of Representatives?
|Wyoming, its as if all the animals in this photo get to vote for President.|
How might this change things? Consider the contested 2000 election - without those "senate" electors, George W. Bush's electoral vote would have dropped from 271 to 211 (he carried 30 states), while Al Gore's electoral vote would have dropped from 266 to 224. In other words, it wasn't Florida which changed the nation's political course, it was Wyoming, Alaska, and North Dakota.
What would be fair? Who would be hurt? It is important to note that the United States does not have - and has never had - any kind of "national election." All elections in the US are state-by-state affairs, but in this one instance - what is fair when the state's come together? Is the Senate enough protection for small states? Do we really have "one-person-one-vote"?
- Ira Socol