lessons from America

Voting in America event at Parliament

In June, Rob Richie – head of FairVote USA – was over in the UK doing a short speaker tour. One of his stops was in Parliament, to talk to the All-Party Group on Electoral Reform, who were hosting an American elections special. Anthony Barnett, of Open Democracy, was the other guest speaker. Here’s a summary of their contributions, along with my own commentary at the end.

America APPG meeting panel - cropped.JPG
Rob Richie – FairVote

There are over 2 million elected representatives in the US – that’s a lot of elections! This can lead to dispersal of accountability and lower turnout for many elections.

There is quite a large amount of institutional inertia. Only twice (1994 and 2006) in the last 56 years has there been a change of party in the House of Representatives. Some State Senate seats have not swapped parties for over 100 years.

This is the first time since 1952 that no sitting President / Vice President has contested the election. Obama is a freshman Senator and barely 3 years from taking his seat is his party’s figurehead and stands on the verge of leading his country. NB. Interesting comparison with Cameron, who took over running his party 5 years after being elected and within 9 years of becoming an MP may be Prime Minister.

1.5% of all Americans donate to a candidate in any even given election cycle. 10% of Iowans voted in their caucus in January.

The Democrats use PR delegate allocation which roughly equates to delegates reflecting the vote share state-wide, though various anomalies and complicating factors. The Republicans use a winner takes all system. Before the other candidates dropped out of the race, McCain was winning all the delegates in many States, but with no more than 37% of the votes. Republicans missed out in media attention and in party building and in voter id as a result of their primaries no longer be competitively fought after 5 Feb.

McCain and Obama both support Instant Run-off Voting (the Alternative Vote). The US has no national referendum or elections. Even the president is elected via State-wide votes, not nationally. Nebraska and Maine are in the only non straight winner-takes-all elections within the Electoral College. But even they are winner-takes-all, just based on the vote not just state-wide but within congressional district. Neither 2 States has yet split their electoral college vote between candidates.

Bush only bothered polling in 18 States in the last year of his 2004 election campaign. The rest did not matter. Voters under 30 are much more likely to turn out to vote in a close election than if it is not a competitive race.

There is at last some real momentum behind reform of the electoral college: the national popular vote campaign, seeking for each state to pass a law which would give that State’s electoral college votes to the candidate who had won the most votes nationwide.

Anthony Barnett – Open Democracy

Why doesn’t reform happen? Global imperial powers, didn’t want possible Napoleon emerging, but wanted to strong centre and potential to remove any political elites who overstep their mark – ie. wanted ability to vote the ‘buggers’ our but not anything else that might enhance democracy. Time may have moved on, but the political elite’s view of government and power has not. Wales, Scotland, London and Lords are all institutions which surround the central state and are all slightly freer to adopt different voting systems and ways of working than the Commons. You won’t get Turkeys voting for their own Xmas.

Below are the points I raised in the discussion afterwards. Not directly looking at what we could use over here, more how American system could be improved. But obviously there is a crossover and some lessons we could usefully bear in mind. These are all strategies to expand the political map, give incentives to participation, enhance democracy and try to modernise the ‘imperial power’ still within our system.
1) Primary versus Caucus – the former involves many more people and is easier to participate in; the latter is better at fostering meaningful political debate / dialogue, being more of a community event, and increasing volunteer activism. Perhaps there is a case for more States to follow Texas’s lead and have a two-step process: 75% delegates apportioned to the primary results and 25% to the caucus results.

2) PR delegate apportionment – needs more fine-tuning: an end to even-number districts and a greater winner’s bonus. Otherwise might be more of a backlash against it.

3) 50 State Strategy – value of having your vote heard and issues articulated, even in safe seats / areas. Supports wider PR arguments and is part a step towards the type of politics and campaigning we would want to see. Also has positive impact on voter registration and turnout.


NB first published on MMVC blog 23 June 2008


August 24, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment