02 May 2011

Should Americans vote like it is the 21st Century?

A bit of a citizenship challenge for students in the United States in a week where Canada and the United Kingdom vote.

America likes to perceive itself as a leader in global democracy (except in Utah, where state Republican leaders object to the word "democracy"), but leadership often conveys a sense of "staying ahead of the game," and the United States has a peculiarly antique electoral and government system, one really inherited - almost in entirety - from the national parent, 18th Century Britain.

American students have probably never heard terms such as "first past the post," or "single-member constituency," but perhaps, during a week in which that parent decides whether to take a tentative step toward contemporary democracy and embrace the "Alternative Vote" process.

Ireland's Taoiseach nominates his cabinet at the opening of the 31st Dáil Éireann.
Ireland's legislature is elected by proportional vote from multi-member constituencies,
over 90% of Irish voters have someone they voted for representing them in Dublin 

So let us bring the question of how we vote and how we govern to our American students. Is it really best to keep an electoral system designed to sustain the power of landed gentry in the Britain of Queen Anne? As Ireland considers dumping its Seanad, should the US dump its Senate? And Presidential government systems around the world, from Russia on down, seem prone to abuse of power... is this the best way to run a government? Should American leaders really only have two years to attempt to implement change? Or are national elections too far apart in other nations?

These are real questions which citizens of a democracy must confront. After all, if it is a democracy, the ability to change the way that government is defined is an essential part. The US has the third oldest extent government and voting system on the planet, behind The Vatican and The Most Serene Republic of San Marino. Is it time to change?

So, at every grade level, get your discussion going...

First Past the Post
Canada's last election, 38% of votes for Conservatives
beats 62% of votes for leftist parties, a common
First Past the Post result
used in the United States, for some British elections, and in Canada, but in the UK and Canada the ruling party often "wins" with 35% of the vote, and in the United States, many feel completely disconnected from their representatives in Congress...
How Alternative Voting would have changed the 2010 British Election
surely this result would have been a Labour-LibDem coalition
Comparing Election Systems

Single Transferrable Vote, Proportional Representation, Multi-Member Constituencies
does this system keep more voters involved? does it lead to more consensus? it tends to force coalitions... is that good?
Proportional Representation and How it Works
British 2010 results
How Proportional Representation Works
No to Proportional Representation
Counting Votes in Ireland (STV-PR)
Fair Vote in Canada (pro-PR)

Alternative Vote
a light version of STV-PR
How Alternative Vote works...

Ireland's Seanad, should it remain?
Reform the Seanad?
Eliminate the Seanad
House of Lords?
US Senate is anti-democratic

Scholastic on Presidential v Parliamentary
PowerPoint comparing systems
Presidential System
Parliamentary System

Let students build their research, try different voting systems in your classroom or school, consider history in various ways.

Irish election results 20111, through Proportional Representation
For example, the French Fourth Republic is often brought up as an example of the instability of parliamentary government, yet, in little more than a decade those "unstable" French coalitions developed a national health care system, developed a free university system, rebuilt France after World War II, and began the development of the peaceful, contemporary continent we now call the European Union. During that same time Britain could only create a national health care system, but, largely due to its electoral system, could not even join the European peace system. And the United States accomplished none of that, and even managed to get mired in the same kind of colonial conflict (Vietnam) which wrecked the Fourth Republic.

Likewise, we call coalitions unstable but witness the results of the US elections in 2008 and 2010 regarding health care and jobs creation: In Britain or Ireland the government would have had up to five years to craft a plan and make it work. Do elections every two years help or hurt?

What do we know? What do we think?

- Ira Socol

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