[EM] California Dreamin', Take 4
drernie at radicalcentrism.org
Mon Sep 13 21:22:32 PDT 2004
So, I've been trying to figure out how to get people who don't
particularly care about election reform to actually think through the
issues involved. This is what I came up with; the goal is to try to
express the basic ideas and motivation without getting bogged down in
I welcome your feedback -- especially on the technical "NOTES" at the
Reengineering California's Legislature
An Inquiry in the Spirit of James Madison
Draft 3, 9/13/2004, Ernest N. Prabhakar, Ph.D.
<DrErnie at RadicalCentrism.org>
I. A VISIT FROM THE PAST
J: Good morning, Governor. Thank you for taking the time to see me.
A: The honor is mine, Mr. President. I have long admired your work on
the U.S. Constitution, especially the Federalist papers.
J: You are very kind, Governor, though that was a long time ago.
However, the Constitution is in fact what I wanted to talk to you
about. I fear I owe you an apology.
A: What, for that business about not allowing naturalized citizens to
run for President? Please, don't worry about it. I'm busy enough now
just running the state of California.
J: Oh, I quite agree. In fact, I really wanted to talk to you about the
California constitution, which in this case borrowed some unfortunate
ideas from ours. In particular, I believe you're having some problems
with the state legislature.
A: You mean those girly-men politicians who are so indebted to special
interests that they refuse to act on behalf of the people?
J: Um, in a manner of speaking, yes. But, really, you shouldn't talk
about them like that. In fact, depending on how you look at it, it
really isn't their fault. It is, well, mine.
A: Yours? You must be kidding, Mr. President. You are, er, were one of
the greatest statesmen of all time. If we had people like you in the
legislature, we wouldn't be having these problems.
J: That's very kind of you to say, Governor, but I'm afraid you're
wrong. Oh, sure, I like to think I'd do a little better than the people
you have in there now. But frankly, we had a pretty low opinion of
state legislatures in my day, too. Human nature hasn't really changed
all that much in two hundred years, after all. But rather that relying
on unnatural levels of nobility, we tried to design a system that would
force human nature to act in the best interest of all the people.
A: And if I may say so, you did a remarkable job. The United States has
become a beacon of hope to all the world, a shining city on a hill, a
golden dream by the...
J: Yes, yes, I know, and thank you. Certainly we are all very proud of
the Constitution, especially considering how little we knew of
practical democracy at the time. But there is one fundamental
development we failed to foresee, which is arguably at the root of your
problems in California. Do you know what that is?
II. THE PROBLEM WITH PARTIES
A: Let me guess. Political parties?
J: Precisely. My theory of large-scale republican government was based
on the idea of multiple independent factions, whose representatives
would only agree about topics of genuine benefit to the entire country.
We failed to predict that factions would coalesce into parties,
especially two dominant parties.
A: But how could you have known? And aren't two parties inevitable, no
J: The answer to both your questions lies in a result known as
A: Divergers Law?
J: No, though that might also be a good name. Claude Duverger
discovered this principle around the 1950's. Our voting system -- where
every citizen casts one vote per office, and the candidates with the
most votes wins -- is called plurality voting It means someone can win
without majority support if there are more than two parties. This
inevitably leads to the dominance of two parties at a time, because of
the risk of "spoiling" the vote. True, third parties can have an
impact, and occasionally replace one of the major parties, but such
events are relatively rare.
A: But why is that a problem? Surely it is a good thing to have two
opposing parties to keep each other honest.
J: Sure, the two-party system has a number of advantages, especially
compared to a one-party system! But when there's only two parties, its
easy for them to get complacent, and collude (intentionally or
unintentionally) in ways that aren't always in the best interest of the
A: Like gerrymandering.
J: Exactly. As you are well aware, partisan redistricting reduces
competition and decreases voting power. That was the first mistake we
made -- putting redistricting in the hand of the legislature.
Objective, community-based districts -- by either a non-partisan
judicial panel or an open computer algorithm -- are the first obvious
change you need to make.
A: Absolutely. Its just a question of timing.
J: Sure, I understand. These things take time. But while that's perhaps
the most obvious mistake, its not the only, or even most important,
mistake you'll have to fix.
A: Then what is?
III. RANKED-CHOICE VOTING
J: The fact that we built our entire system explicitly around plurality
voting, and thus implicitly around the assumption that there are only
two choices. The world is more complicated than that, and California of
all places needs a system that reflects, embraces, and channels that
A: You're absolutely right. California is the most diverse society in
human history. Politics as usual has got to go. We can't have a
polarized government with the right-wing nut jobs on one side, and the
left-wing weenies on the other, and nobody in the middle except me. But
how can a better voting system change that?
J: By making it easier for good ideas to bubble up through the system,
and harder for bad ideas to get approved. You see, every decision
making system is optimized for certain kinds of problems and solutions.
Plurality voting implicitly assumes duality -- that there's only two
sides to every problem. We need a system that allows more than that.
A: So, what would that look like?
J: Well, the simplest improvement over plurality is something often
called ranked-choice voting. Rather than just picking a single favorite
candidate, voters can rank candidates in order of preference.
A: Ah, that way they aren't forced to pick the lesser of two evils.
They can always vote for their favorite, but still help their
second-favorite defeat their least favorite. It also means
third-parties can run without becoming spoilers.
J: Correct. Even better, that same technique can be extended to entire
legislatures using a concept known as proportional representation.
Instead of one seat per district, you can five, ten, or even more.
Voters rank as many candidates as they care about, with surplus votes
being redistributed further down the ballot.
A: Sounds simple to vote, but hard to count. What is the impact of all
J: Basically, it means that voters get candidates who maximize their
viewpoint. So, if in a district with ten seats we had, say:
44% voted Democrat
26% voted Republican
24% voted Libertarian with Republican second
6% voted Green who voted Democrat second
then the delegation would have 5 Democrats, 3 Republicans, and 2
A: Ah! That way the legislature mirrors the actual population, without
the distortion caused by gerrymandering. Would you do the whole
legislature that way?
IV. BICAMERAL REPRESENTATION
J: Actually, no. Despite its many virtues, the problem with
proportional representation is that it encourages candidates to focus
only on their ideological base. Plus, it means that a splinter party
can become the swing vote needed to form a majority, giving them too
much power instead of too little.
A: So, do you have a clever solution to that?
J: Actually, I would recommend you just reuse the existing solution of
a bicameral legislature. Have the Assembly elected by proportional
districts with say, seven seats apiece. But, have Senators elected
from single-winner districts, again using ranked-choice voting. That
way, the Assembly promotes diversity, whereas the Senate encourages
moderation -- pretty much the way we originally intended.
A: I get it. But won't having geographical districts at all still allow
J: Right, that's why you need to first need a party-neutral
A: Got it. Hasta la vista, gerry!
J: Um, yes. However, I'd also like to recommend two more reforms, if
you don't mind
A: I would be honored to hear them, especially since you've come all
J: First, change the way legislatives offices -- speakers, committees,
etc. -- are chosen.
A: Oh, definitely. The current system is all about trading favors
behind closed doors.
J: Right. Instead of caucuses by the majority party, use ranked-choice
voting across the entire house. Committees would similarly be filled
proportionally, which is especially useful when there's more than two
A: Excellent! That way there's a better chance of getting members who
are actually committed to doing the job for everyone, not just amassing
pork for themselves.
J: Exactly. Again, the goal is the same as my original theory of
factions. Create incentives for groups to focus on their own
interests individually, but come together in ways that act in the best
interests of the entire state.
A: So, the system you propose will solve that?
J: Well, it will help, but I have an even more radical solution if
you're open it.
A: Bring it on!
V. BICAMERAL PROCEDURES
J: One reason for complexity and pork in legislation is the fact that
everything gets written five times: twice for each House's committee,
twice more for each full House, and one last time in Conference. This
gives lots of room for shady dealing.
A: Tell me about it. Should we then go back to a single House, like a
J: That's one option, but it would disrupt the balance we discussed
earlier. Instead, why not treat legislation like a product whose
quality we want to maximize. Do you know what the most important factor
is in product quality?
A: Independent testing?
J: Right! Based on past experience, the full house is clearly not
independent enough to discipline its own committees. Instead, I
propose we give the Assembly the sole power to write legislation, but
the Senate the sole power to edit it. That way the senior Senate acts
as a check on the passions of the lower house, as we intended.
A: Interesting. How would that work?
J: During debates on a bill, there are often good amendments which fail
to get approved by a majority, as well as bad amendments that get
approved due to log-rolling between special interests.
A: Tell me about it!
J: But now, the Assembly is required to pass along all relevant
amendments as well as the bill. The Senate would collect the amendments
into some reasonable sets of options -- like buying a new car -- then
pick the best using ranked-choice voting. Which they'd send directly
along to you -- no conference committee needed!
A: Amazing! But won't that give the Senate too much power?
J: Not at all. The Senate can never write a single line of
legislation; they can only work with ideas that originated in the
Assembly. It actually gives them less work, but more responsibility,
which might attract more experienced part-time legislators.
A: Wow, that's pretty cool. The Assembly can focus on being creative
in generating ideas, while the Senate focuses on being wise in making
J: Right. In fact, some scientists argue that this is how our brains
work -- the right-side generates ideas, while the left side evaluates
A: Well, my left side is going to be quite busy for a while evaluating
all these ideas!
J: Sorry to dump so much on you at once, but I felt it was the least I
could do after saddling you with that problem in the first place.
A: Please, no apology necessary. You did the best you could with what
you had. I can see how these improvements can break the two-party
stranglehold, and encourage better decisions. Why haven't we done this
J: Well, frankly, my fellow Founding Fathers and I are part of the
problem. We are held in so much esteem that people distrust their
ability to improve on our work. That's why I want you to understand why
we did what we did, and where and how we went wrong -- so you can do
better without losing anything important.
A: Its' a tall order, but I'm willing to try.
J: Good man. Now, do you remember everything I told you?
A: Let me see. According to you, California needs:
* Objective, non-partisan redistricting
* Ranked-choice voting for statewide offices and Senators
* Proportional representation for the Assembly
* Open elections for legislative offices
* Separate roles, where the Assembly writes and Senate edits
J: That's it exactly. Again, this is just some ideas I've had over the
last couple centuries. Use them as a starting point, but don't be
afraid to think on your own.
A: Me, afraid? Ha!
J: That's the spirit, Governor. Just don't disappoint me, or --- I'll
A: Hey, that's my line!
The characters in this story, despite their names, are completely
fictitious. Their words and beliefs are mine. Any similarity with other
persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Ernest N. Prabhakar, Ph.D.
September 14th, 2004
plurality voting is the most common form of voting in democratic
countries; sometimes known as First-Past-the-Post (FPTP). Each voter
can only pick a single candidate, meaning that a candidate can win with
a plurality rather than a true majority if there are more than two
parties. The fact that voting for a third-party can cause your
second-choice to lose leads to the "spoiler" effect form third-parties,
sometimes called the "lesser of two evils" problem.
ranked-choice voting is the most common alternative to plurality, and
sometimes called rank-order voting or preference voting. Rather than
picking a single favorite, voters rank the various candidates in order
of preference.The most popular implementation of ranked-choice is
called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). However, most theorists recommend
an alternate system called Majority Voting (MV) which unlike IRV
satisfies the "Condorcet criterion," which states that the candidate
which is preferred by the greatest majority over each rival must be
elected. To use a sports analogy, IRV is single-elimination while MV
proportional representation is a system for allocating seats in a
legislature or other body according to their level of support in the
electorate. The most flexible implementation is known known as Single
Transferable Vote (STV), and is closely related to IRV. Voters
rank-order at least as many candidates as there are seats available --
ideally more. Candidates with enough first-choice votes automatically
win. Surplus votes for those candidates (chosen at random) are
reallocated to those voters second-choice, and the process repeats
until all the seats are filled. STV sacrifices a rigid proportionality
for the flexibility of voting for individual candidates, rather than
The Radical Middle -- the movement I am aligned with
Founding Brothers -- my source for James Madison
Madison's Theory of Factions
Wikipedia -- an open, collaborative encyclopedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condorcet_method (majority voting)
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