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Building democracy back better

Today at noon, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be inaugurated as President and Vice-President. In addition to all the new policies and priorities they will implement and develop, it’s a relief. Over the last four years, democracy hit a modern low point. Now we face a long challenge: how to repair our system and make it better. 

Four years ago, many problems were already apparent: an incoming President who lost the popular vote, running on a divisive platform, who had no demonstrated interest in governing; a Senate that held back a Supreme Court appointment from the outgoing President; and a breakdown in the centrality of facts and disclosure in how we conduct our national politics.

I would say that the subsequent years turned out to be every bit as bad as expected by pessimists (for example see our Authoritarian Checklist). And all the divisions, corruption, and criminality got worse, with two (two!) impeachments. Today, with a new President, might seem like a relief. We get to see experienced government officials, and can hope for repairs to agencies ranging from the State Department to the Post Office. And the new Senate 51-50 majority will at least consider bills that until now have been bottled up by the Majority Leader.

However, most of these problems preceded Trump, and the core causes of the problems aren’t going away by themselves.

Among these are issue polarization, economic inequality, and outdated democratic institutions. Which is why I’ve become increasingly committed to helping us build back. Our new Electoral Innovation Lab is focused on understanding ways to make democracy more representative and responsive to all citizens, and to reduce the ways in which election rules magnify polarization. We’re going to do this with a combination of law, data, and quantitative research.

Our biggest priority is redistricting reform. Our Princeton Gerrymandering Project will have its busiest year yet in 2021. Democrats won the national popular vote by 3.1 percentage points and control the House of Representatives by a 222-212 margin. But there’s a serious chance that majority will flip in 2022. And not just because public opinion moves against Democrats – which would be fair, in a majoritarian sense. A repeat of the Great Gerrymander of 2012 can create distortions of representation that build a partisan advantage for Republicans. Preventing or reducing that kind of distortion is a major goal for us. Through open-data access via OpenPrecincts.org, citizen input through Representable.org, we’re giving everyone the tools they need to respond rapidly. Our team will help give each state what it needs, from assistance to commissions to rapid scoring tools. We think it’s possible to make sure that representationally, 2021 will be fairer than 2011.

There are new wrinkles: a potentially inaccurate Census, and the fact that we have to work on a state-by-state level now that the Supreme Court is newly hostile to voting and redistricting rights. With the help of external collaborators and student projects, we’re working to address these problems.

Voting rules are our other area of emphasis. Voting rules such as plurality-winner elections can reward determined factions, electing winners with a minority of opinion. When the voters who decide the election (i.e. the pivotal voters) are different from representative voters (i.e. the median voters), extremists can take charge.
 

Given where voter polarization has headed, this is a recipe for disaster. In the January 6th certification of electors, Congresspersons who voted to overthrow the election tended to come from deeply Republican districts. In Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, the 16 votes to overthrow came from districts that were won with 64.9% of the vote, compared with 12 votes to certify from districts that were won with 59.9% of the vote. In lopsided districts, politicians only have to face primary voters.

There is a weird surprise here: gerrymandering may have mitigated the sedition problem in Michigan and Ohio. With a deeply disruptive issue like election certification, districts that were engineered to be close to the 50% win threshold aren’t so safe anymore. In Michigan and Ohio, which are aggressively gerrymandered, incumbents in close districts have to think about whether they’re going to fall below 50%, ending up as what political scientist Bernie Grofman calls a dummymander – a gerrymander that cut things too close. Politicians can tell when they’re close to the edge, and so it’s no surprise that Michigan and Ohio had split GOP caucuses on the certification vote. Redistricting reform will not help this problem. It will change how many GOP representatives are elected – but their districts might be more partisan – which could inadvertently feed extremism.

Instead, a better way to address extremist representatives is a change to voting rules. Reforms like open primaries and ranked-choice voting can make legislators answerable to all voters, not just their core supporters. An important part of the Electoral Innovation Lab is Open Primaries, a partner whose mission is to reform primaries. Here at Princeton, we are interested in understanding where these reforms are likely to work best. Part of the goal is to understand how different reforms may collide. For example, based on what I’ve said, redistricting reform may make voting-rule reform more important as a tool to reduce extremism.

Here’s the bigger point: To truly repair and strengthen democracy, we have to understand that different reforms address different problems. Fair districting fixes one kind of problem (representational harm), and voting rules fix another problem (individual winners aren’t truly representative). Democracy’s a complex system of rules. In the coming years, reformers have to think like engineers or doctors, and know which intervention will work, and where.

We’re exploring other areas of research as well. We aim to do a combination of practical policy work and high-quality research to repair democracy. I hope you will follow and support our work in the years ahead.

Happy inauguration!

Sam Wang
Director, Electoral Innovation Lab

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