Fixing Congress from the states.
The best ideas for saving and strengthening our democracy are happening closer to home.
Even in this atmosphere of intense political disagreement, most of us can agree that Congress is broken. But it is unlikely that Congress will fix itself anytime soon, so it is up to the people to fix Congress. And like most major change in America, that comes from the laboratories of democracy, the states.
Thankfully, the elections clause of the U.S. Constitution gives the people a roadmap for congressional reform through the states. It says that the times, places and manner of holding congressional elections shall be decided by state legislatures. The Constitution gives state legislatures the power to draw election maps for congressional districts, as well. And in the twenty-four states that allow citizens to initiate ballot measures, the people have the power to reform how we elect Congress ourselves.
So if we change the state laws that determine the way members of Congress are elected from the states, we change Congress. Already progress is being made on this approach to congressional reform. In fact, there are more statewide political reform measures on the ballot in 2018 than at any time in U.S. history.
State laws are solving the problem of gerrymandering, where politicians manipulate the voting district maps for their own personal gain. Anti-gerrymandering policies have been adopted in Ohio, Arizona, California, Florida, and Iowa. Ballot measures to end gerrymandering will be decided by voters in Michigan, Colorado, Missouri and Utah on November 6.
Boosting voter participation with vote from home and Election Day voter registration is another way state laws are impacting congressional elections. Twenty-two states allow certain elections to be conducted entirely by mail. And in Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, all elections are by mail, so voters can fill out their ballot in the comfort of their home and election officials can match voter signatures to a secure file. Seventeen states allow voters to register at their polling places and this year Maryland voters have the opportunity to become the eighteenth.
And the most groundbreaking innovation that could improve congressional elections is ranked choice voting. With ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, voters rank candidates in order from their favorite to least favorite. If your first choice cannot win, your vote automatically counts for your second choice, so you do not waste your vote. This gives voters more power, more choices, and the ability to support who you actually like the most. It also eliminates the “spoiler effect,” when votes are split between similar candidates causing a candidate not backed by a majority of voters to win. Candidates have to compete for votes with their best ideas, not just how much money they can raise. Ranked choice voting has been used in local elections in seven states: Minnesota, Colorado, California, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Maryland and Maine. Maine became the first state to use the commonsense system in statewide elections this year, and reformers are planning to pursue that policy in several more states.
State by state, the way we elect Congress is changing for the better. As these laws get adopted and implemented, we should see more competitive congressional elections and more voter participation. Soon, hopefully, we will hit a tipping point of state laws passed that will lead to federal reform.
In the past, major federal reform on a range of issues has come after state laws paved the way first. Women won the right to vote in twenty-seven states, starting in Wyoming, before it was the law of the land federally. Thirty-four states legalized interracial marriage before it became federal law. Passing state laws on those issues and many others has been an essential catalyst to winning federal reform.
My organization, RepresentUs, recently released a five-minute animated video that explains how the people have the power to unrig the system using this proven approach. It is time to intensify the rush of state-level political reform to fix our broken Congress.
Dan Krassner is the political director for RepresentUs, the nation’s largest nonpartisan anti-corruption group. Follow him on Twitter: @DanKrassner