Every year fewer and fewer Americans make the effort to vote, and that percentage in general elections has recently gone down below 60%. This growing alienation of the citizenry has been fueled by the corruption that is endemic to our current system. A very large proportion of the electorate is prone to the feeling that politics doesn't matter. Whoever wins, the outcome is the same.
And concurrently, increasing percentages of those who do vote are registering as independents, essentially not recognizing the validity of the two party system. Many additional voters might prefer to register for something other than the two parties if they didn't value the ability to vote in the major party primaries. Both major parties have essentially become minor parties. Take off the 40% who don't vote and then the 20 to 30% on top of that who register as independents and the two parties together hold the allegiance of only a plurality of the American people.
At the root of the problem is our current political structure. Alienation derives at least in part from structural inadequacies in the existing political system. The American system, because of its emphasis on the middle, is good for stability, but it is short on representing divergent views. And concurrently, representatives in Congress and the state legislatures are excellent at protecting and defending the narrow interests of their constituencies, but they seldom uphold the national or state interest if it conflicts with those narrow concerns. Defense spending is the best example. No matter how worthless, unnecessary or counterproductive such an expenditure is, the legislators from affected districts will fight to the best of their ability to protect the public pork barrel. The greater good, the higher value carries no weight.
Citizens are usually familiar with statewide officeholders but rarely more than 10% of the populace knows who their state legislator is. This ignorance of one's representatives is a outgrowth at least partly of people's inability to know what district they live in. Starting two centuries ago with Governor Gerry of New York, from whence the word gerrymander - a combination of his name and the districts he drew up which looked like salamanders - was coined, districts have been noted for their strange, illogical shapes. Political district boundaries are purely political creatures, designed insofar as possible to maximize the benefit of the party that happens to be in power at the time they are drawn up. There is no thought whatever of drawing district lines out of a desire for equity or fairness let along logic.
The time has come therefore to consider radical alternatives to the current system. This statement is not made lightly. American life has become extremely ossified. Suggestions that fundamental changes need to be made in America's political structure will initially be met by extreme skepticism. This skepticism, even disbelief if not derision, stems from more than two centuries of tradition combined with the reality that few people have even remotely considered substantive structural changes. But no system, no matter how venerated or ably it has served us in the past, is perfect or beyond consideration for repair and rejuvenation.
What we seek to accomplish by these changes is twofold. The first improvement is to more directly connect citizens to their representatives, that is, make it easier to recognize the district they live in, and by extension, know their representatives. This is accomplished by basing one house of a bicameral legislature with a system based on bioregions or permanent political boundaries.
The second goal is provide representation to a greater variety of political philosophies. This is accomplished with a system based on proportional representation, a voting method that is typical of most of the world's democracies.
America is hardly the only country that suffers from less than ideal, less than truly representative political structures. Japan's rural districts have far more power than it's urban districts. Every political system has it's anomalies. America's Senate is another good example. California's senators represent 70 times as many people as Wyoming's. Both are legitimate though flawed democratic systems. The point is that for a government to be democratic does not necessarily mean it functions well or truly represents the wishes of it's electorate.
Many countries have philosophically based forms of government which constitutes one leg of this new approach for America, no country has thought of the other leg, bioregional or fixed political boundary representation.
But first, without radical changes to the electoral system, there is a voting system rarely used in America which can help to bring disaffected voters back in to the electorate. Preference voting or instant runoff offers a simple method for letting people vote their first choice without fearing the election of the worst of two evils. Minor party candidates face near insurmountable obstacles to election in our winner take all system. Even if they weren't going to win it would be important to know how many people actually wanted the minor party candidate as their first choice.
Instant runoff solves that problem. Voters have the option of marking first choice, second choice, etc. For example, if there are three candidates vying for an office and no one gets a majority of first choice ballots, we return to the candidate with the least votes and count second choices. Let's say the Democrat gets 47%, the Republican gets 45% a Libertarian gets the remaining 8% of first choice ballots. Now we count Libertarian second choices and 2% goes to the Democrat and 6% goes to the Republican; the Republican wins with 51%.
vote is thrown away and yet the winner has gained approval, on one level
or another, from a majority of the electorate. Nobody has to vote for the
lesser of two evils, at least as a first choice. Voters true feelings are
expressed. This applies as well to nonpartisan races, simply eliminating
costly runoffs and putting more voting at general elections where more
The first half of what's lacking in American political life is the representation of divergent views. The two party system forces all politics to gravitate towards the middle. The electorate is always forced to compromise, rarely feeling that their views are adequately represented.
In place of the present system, people vote for this legislative body by party. Each contending party offers a list of it's candidates in order of preference. All members are elected at-large. Voters do not cast ballots for individuals, rather strictly by party, though they can know who will represent the party depending on the size of it's vote. If a party gets 20% of the vote it gets 20% of the seats. If it is entitled to ten seats then the first ten names on it's list are elected.
Proportional representation tends to increase representation of women and minorities in politics since every party seeks the widest diversity in it's party list. Another problem in our present winner-take-all single member district system is that most representatives are elected from safe seats where the only contests are in low turnout primaries. In a safe inner city Democratic district, the Republicans, let alone independents and minor party voters, are never represented.
legislative elections in Quebec provide a good example of the problems
and anomalies in our present system. The Quebec nationalists received 44%
of the vote, the Liberals received 42% and a third party got the remaining
14%. The lineup in the legislature is now 75 seats for the nationalists,
45 seats for the Liberals and zero for the third party. The Quebec legislature
absolutely does not reflect the politics of it's people. It is very heavily
skewed in one party's favor.
The second legislative body in this radical redesign differs from current practice in the respect that district lines are based on permanent natural features or political boundaries (such as county lines) in place of representation that is based on boundaries that are undefinable, constantly changing and ultimately purely self-serving political machinations. In one alternative of this radical redesign watersheds and bioregions are used to define political boundaries - the only exception being in cities where major, unmistakable, man-made boundary features such as freeways are also used. In the other alternative, county lines or other fixed historic political lines are used.
Today's political boundaries - which embody manifold political manipulations - are transmuted into the obvious, simple, logical and untamperable, whether adapted into the bioregional option or long-recognized minor political divisions such as county lines. In this concept the individual will almost always know what district he/she lives in. There's little chance of mistaking one's bioregion and nearly everyone knows what county they live in. In place of a very small percentage of the citizenry (certainly less than 10%) being able to identify their district (or who represents it) everyone would at least know which district they live in. And they are permanent, they never change.
Of course in this arrangement each region or county (or urbanized area) has a different population. Population differences are compensated for by allocating to each representative weighted voting power based on his/her region's percentage of the total statewide population. In other words, if a bioregionís population is 3.2% of state population, it receives 3.2% of the voting power. If it's a sparsely populated area with .3% it gets .3% of the voting power. In a system of fixed boundaries population changes do not trigger boundary changes. One simply adjusts the weighted vote from each area at the time of each census. This concept also has the advantage of providing an increased voice for sparsely populated but large geographical areas even though their actual voting power is small.
Cities can not be bioregionally divided up. Nevertheless, a very clear division of the city can be made based on a combination of natural features like rivers, man-made features like freeways, or long recognized or easily identified geographical or political designations such as NE, NW, etc. For instance, if a relatively equal or relatively distinct five part division can be made in an urban populated area which is entitled to say, thirty representatives, then each of the five divisions could elect six representatives at large through some form of proportional representation. They should, as far as possible, be roughly equal, but the allowable range would be great relative to today's practice since voting power here also is calculated down to one tenth percents.
It might also be possible to use neighborhoods or logical groupings of neighborhoods as a subdivision of the larger urban area boundaries. For example, if a quadrant or similar subdivision is entitled to four representatives, they could be elected at large or represent groups of neighborhoods. Once again it's not necessary for the groups to be equally populated. A small area may be distinct and not easily combined with other areas. In all cases our overriding goal is to clarify and simplify political divisions.
Whatever the situation, the essence is that boundaries are identifiable and unchanging. They are also more consistent with shared community interests. For instance, gerrymandered districts with snaky jagged arms create a lot of circumstances in which next door neighbors on neighborhood streets wind up in different districts. Or they create situations such as a small block of low income inner city residents from one side of a big river getting tacked on to a wealthy neighborhood on the other side (my own experience). In effect their vote has been rendered valueless. Adjacent neighborhoods can often be widely different in income but they will nonetheless have to deal with the same streets, local problems, etc..
Bioregional divisions insure shared interests. Everybody shares the same watershed and it's problems. There is no situation, except in the largest watersheds, in which upstream polluters have different representation than downstream sufferers. It insures clear lines of control and responsibility. Current "unnatural" boundary lines contain many anomalies, situations in which boundaries are inefficient or make no sense.
The ability to identify with a neighborhood and by extension the increased likelihood to be knowledgeable about one's representative can be a very powerful facilitator of political awareness and advancement. This is not necessarily a cure-all, but anything that has a significant positive effect is welcome and will aid in very important incremental improvements.
As part of this radical overhaul of government, the state's major subdivisions are identical to representative boundaries. Anomalies are ended; efficiency and logic replace the political, accidental heritage of the past. And recognition is greatly increased. It may be that county boundaries, anomalous as they may be, would work better in a first phase of this radical makeover. Once the unequal population district has gained acceptance with long familiar county boundaries a more complex division can be attempted.
A third problem that restrains participation in the political process is multiplication of offices. The are numerous overlapping jurisdictions which the voters must familiarize themselves with. Cities, counties, educational districts, special districts, regional governments, state representative districts, federal legislative districts all have overlapping jurisdictions and boundaries. It takes a rare political animal to maintain familiarity on all those levels.
Bioregional organization of government provides an additional vehicle for rationalization of politics. Instead of each jurisdiction electing it's officials and acting separately, political pyramids are built where the lower levels provide foundation for the upper levels. For instance, as part of elections for the bioregional legislative bodies, state representatives can also be chosen. Each elected body chooses one amongst themselves to represent the bioregion at the state level. Few people know their state representatives anyway and one election is eliminated. Even if the number of elections don't change at least their boundaries coincide so that the voter can have a good grasp of an elected officials sphere of representation lies.
THE IDEAL COMBINATION
The combination of a small constituency body based on bioregions and a second based on political philosophy fills in the major gaps of the present system. It gives the electorate districts they can easily know and identify with and by inference make it that much easier to know their representatives. It also allows for the expression of a multitude of viewpoints, making people feel their vote actually means something. People feel helpless to affect the two major parties. Fully a third of the electorate is unwilling to align with either party. They are essentially disenfranchised since the entire system is weighted against a multiparty system.
Of course there is no guarantee that a radical reformation of government will be the answer to growing political alienation. But it is a start at correcting some of the most obvious problems. The two major parties are unlikely to voluntarily encourage or let pass without a fight any sort of third party involvement in the political process such as offered by proportional representation. On the other hand there should be no inherent reason for the two parties to oppose the bioregional plan.
Needless to say the resistance to any serious change in the political structure will meet with extreme and vociferous opposition in the ossified America of today. But alienation is rife and the time is right to make a stab a real change. The time has come to cast out our preconceived notions and the weight of ancient tradition and embrace fresh new concepts.
CASE STUDY - Oregon Senate Based on County and Urbanized Area Boundaries
A reformation of the State Senate based on fixed boundaries would probably be simpler to accomplish if based on county boundaries than the completely new concept of bioregions, (and admittedly division by counties is far easier to do a case study of). Each county does have it's own unique history and culture and almost everybody knows what county they live in. There may be a bit of confusion near the boundaries, but it's hard to imagine that more than a few percent of the total population does not know their resident county. Certainly almost no one who votes would be unaware of their county.
Oregon's population is about 3.2 million, with about 80% residing in the Willamette valley. Moreover nearly half the state's people live in the Portland environs. Multnomah County, the state's largest, has about 640,000 people and a little over 20% of the state's population. On the other end of the spectrum Oregon's three smallest counties, Sherman, Gilliam and Wheeler, grouped together in the north central part of the state, have only 5500 people total, or less than .2% of the state's population.
When dealing with the low population counties the question is whether to give each one it's own representative. The smallness of a county's population shouldn't automatically exempt it from individual representation. The voting power of the smallest county would be minute, only .05% of the state's population, but that doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't deserve it's own district. Individual counties, even the smallest, are politically distinguishable and unique. But conceivably, with only 1600 people, the smallest county might have a difficult time finding an individual of legislative caliber.
One disadvantage of giving every county an individual representative would be the necessity of dividing the vote down to hundredths of a percent. That would make it more confusing and complicated than necessary. It would simplify matters to establish a minimum of 1% of the total state population for separate representation, with the actual vote broken into 10ths of a percent. Furthermore for a measure to pass it would need to win by at least one full percent. But that groups many counties together with clearly different philosophies. If that minimum number is chosen then 17 counties or nearly half the total would not qualify for separate representation. The combining of representation in this scenario should be accomplished through a give and take between affected counties. When there are options for combining then the counties should have some part in the decision making process.
Alternatively, 16,000 or about .5% of state population also seems a viable, reasonable minimum. That would put seven of Oregon's 36 counties under the minimum. The three smallest counties with the addition of an adjacent fourth, which is much bigger but still under the minimum, would make up a single district but still be a bit under the minimum .5% at 14,500. In this case exact numbers are not important. There doesn't need to be any absolutes about the number 16,000, it can be a suggested number and subject to the wishes of the counties involved. Logistically it would make sense to group those four together. The important point is that the vote itself is divided into tenths of a percent. In this .5% case four districts would be eliminated through combination. In the 1% case the total would be reduced by about 10 districts.
Of the three potential divisions mentioned above I tend to favor giving each county separate representation and even though the smallest county has only .05% of state population I would give it .1% representation to simplify accounting. The voting weight is so small it won't really make a difference.
On the high population side I suggest 100,000, (currently about 3% of state population and the approximate population represented by current Oregon Senators) as a maximum for single representation. A position is granted for each 100,000 citizens or fraction thereof. Therefore a county with 220,000 people would have three representatives who divide the vote equally. In multiple representation counties preference voting is used. In a three person district the voter gets three votes which can be placed on three different candidates or all three votes placed on one candidate or any combination. This allows a much greater range of representation than the current winner-take-all system.
As a further refinement, I would separate urban from rural representation in the high population counties. Separate representation is triggered when a single urbanized area within a county goes over the 100,000 level. In Oregon this division is made easy by the state's land use laws which have made a clear separation between urban and rural. This rule would apply to the three counties in the Portland metro area plus the Eugene and Salem urbanized areas. Increased representation for high population counties would add about 23 legislators to the total. That would leave a total of about 50 to 57 for this house depending on minimum representation of small population counties.
In previous times before computerization this concept would have been much more difficult to implement. Today it is not a problem. While it is a totally new concept and a bit complicated and confusing at first, it nonetheless solves one of the worst problems with the current amorphous, changeable, undefinable, and corrupt district system. Everybody knows exactly what district they live in, they are based on obvious political or geographical boundaries and thus they are clear constituencies, and they never change. Tallying the votes is more complicated, every other part of the electoral system is far simplified.
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