How Electoral Reforms Have Backfired

15 Nov, 2018


How Electoral Reforms Have Backfired

November 2018

The antidote to gridlock, polarization and corruption in Washington is giving more control of the system to the voters, right — to the people?

Well, not exactly, according to Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro in Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself. In fact, the two Yale University political scientists argue, it is well-meaning efforts to reform our political system that have led to many of the problems we face today. Unfortunately, the understandable sense of betrayal that arises when Washington can’t “get things done” leads to calls for more of the same bad medicine. And it’s not just the United States that is facing these problems. Shapiro talked to us about those challenges.

Reforms going back to the Progressive Era seek to restrict the control that the political class has over our choices of candidates, platforms, elections and policies. Are people wrong to want more control in their own hands?

They’re not wrong. Their frustration is understandable. But the efforts to reform the system are piecemeal. They are Band-Aids on the wrong problems and do not take into consideration the effect their piecemeal approaches have on the system they are trying to fix. They make Washington more dysfunctional. They’re worse than Band-Aids. It’s more like a bloodletting. It weakens the patient rather than strengthens.

What are some examples of these reform efforts that are making things worse?

We look at the political primaries, for example, at ballot initiatives, even at efforts to make sure more minorities are represented in Congress. Unfortunately, these efforts, although well-intentioned, came at the cost of creating majority-minority districts through gerrymandering.

The creation of those districts was to ensure the representation of African-Americans in the South, right? Which was a good thing?

The intention was good, but the effect of the reforms has been to create more “safe seats.” By that we mean where the candidates who run in the general election in November are chosen in the primaries, where voter turnout is very low. Also, the people who tend to vote in primaries are party activists who also tend to be on the extreme right or left end of the spectrum. They are choosing the candidates who run in the general election, and too often they support policies that most voters in the general election don’t support. We see the same pattern repeated in Europe and Latin America, with the same results.

Can you offer some examples of how this works?

Sure. Presidential primaries were not that important in the past. Hubert Humphrey in 1968 didn’t run in any of the Democratic primaries. There weren’t that many of them. Today they are ubiquitous. Donald Trump ran in Republican primaries and kept defeating more “establishment” Republican candidates — ones preferred by the party leadership in Washington — and won the nomination with the support of only 5 percent of the American electorate.

How about on the Democratic side?

In the 14th District of New York, in the House race that got so much attention, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated a longtime Democratic incumbent with only 11.8 percent turnout. When an insurgent candidate like that — an avowed socialist, possibly to the left of Bernie Sanders — goes to Washington, one of two things happens. The new member of Congress continues to stick to the issues on which they campaigned, which weakens the party leadership — making it more difficult for it to function effectively — or they move to the center. And when they move to the center, they get accused of “betraying” the voters who elected them.

Where did all this start?

Primaries, of course, have been around for a century. But some of this unfortunate turn of events we trace to the efforts by Democrats to reform their own presidential nominating process in the 1970s. In an effort to be more inclusive and representative, they instituted reforms in the way delegates were selected. The result was nominating George McGovern, who lost in a landslide. Ted Kennedy so weakened Jimmy Carter in the primaries in 1980 that Carter was unable to get re-elected.

Isn’t the Republican story similar, going back to the decision by President Nixon to form the Committee to Re-Elect the President, which put distance between the Republican National Committee and his own re-election bid? Also, at this time, didn’t conservative direct mail effectively bypass the “mainstream media” and weaken the GOP as a source of information about candidates and their policies?

There’s a lot of truth in that. Direct mail was like social media today in that it compounded the problem, exaggerating our differences and making it possible to build a following among a small but vocal base of supporters. That’s how Trump managed to win, by appealing to his base with little regard for whether he would be able to gain the support of the electorate in the broadest sense. The parties historically competed for the middle — for the broad support of the electorate. That also made it possible for them to govern effectively.

What does the system need?

The country needs strong political parties whose leaders put forward platforms that can win in a general election. Instead, candidates — including party leaders — stick to the issues that the primary voters care about. That’s immigration and tax cuts for the Republicans and minimum wage, maybe, for the Democrats. We think of these as “drive-by” issues. The candidates make preposterous promises they know they can’t deliver on, just to keep their base happy. Democrats like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris are offering up programs they know can’t even get through a Democratic Congress, to distribute money to low-income constituents.

And the Republicans?

Their own leadership can’t function effectively in the current environment. John Boehner couldn’t deliver as House speaker because when he tried he was accused of “selling out.” The same thing has happened to Paul Ryan. No one had the clout to remove them from their leadership, so they just hung around until they wanted to leave on their own terms. But in part because they have safe seats, no one has the power to get rid of Nancy Pelosi. [Until 2018] she presided over four consecutive losses in midterm elections. In a more parliamentary system, she’d have been removed from office. In a properly functioning system, no one could hang around like that for 30 years.

Would term limits help?

No, because term limits are sort of beside the point. They’re also Band-Aid approaches that don’t look at bigger problems. They have term limits in Mexico — only one term in any office — but has it ended corruption, as advertised? Not at all. All the current officeholders now just spend their time looking for the next gig.

What are we supposed to do to fix the problem?

We offer some ideas, but here’s one that is not unrealistic. It addresses the problem of lower voter turnout in primary elections. You can still hold a primary, but unless 70 percent of the voters who turned out in the past general election vote in the primary, the results of the primary are invalid. That way the candidate chosen in a primary is more likely to reflect the electorate in that jurisdiction. It’s not a panacea, but it’s a start.

Reach Shapiro at 203.432.3415 or

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