The oral arguments have started in the Supreme Court on a new challenge to the US Voting Rights Act. In particular, the challenge is to the provision that requires certain jurisdictions (mostly southern states) to get approval from the federal government before making any changes to voter ID laws or redistricting. The New Yorker has an interesting take on this, focusing on some of Justice Scalia’s interesting arguments.
Apparently, Scalia wonders whether it’s improper (or even unconstitutional) for the federal government to treat some states differently. I agree with the counter argument that voting rights protections are not an “entitlement” (as Scalia defines them), and that the history of racism and segregation justifies such protections.
Instead, I’m willing to concede Scalia’s argument to him, but with a (comparative) caveat. And I’m drawing here on the example of Switzerland.
For all of its reputation as a “liberal” country, Switzerland is actually rather conservative. In fact, it was one of the last countries in the world to grant women the right to vote, in 1971 (for comparison, women won the right to vote in Iran in 1963).
But there’s an interesting twist: Because of Swizterland’s unique form of federalism, individual cantons have tremendous political autonomy—even on issues of rights. Some Swiss cantons didn’t give women the right to vote for many years after 1971. In fact, the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden didn’t grant women the right to vote until 1990.
So what happened between 1971 and 1990? Well, fairly simple: Women in Appenzell Innerhoden could vote in federal elections, but not in local elections. Why? Because federal elections in Switzerland (and in most countries) are managed by federal agencies, while local elections are managed by local agencies.
Perhaps you see where I’m going with this. See, in the United States, even federal elections are managed by local bodies (either at the state or country level). That’s why we have so many different ballots (remember Florida 2000?) and types of voting machines across the country on presidential elections. But why should local agencies run federal elections? There’s no real reason for it. Certainly not any spelled out in the US Constitution (at least not that I’m aware of).
So one solution to the Voting Rights Act (at least for the purposes of federal elections) would be to simply announce that federal offices (elections to the House, the Senate, and the Presidency) will be managed by a single federal agency that would proscribe a single, universal voting system for all the offices (a uniform ballot, etc.). States would be free to elect their local offices with whatever rules they choose (subject to some federal oversight to protect civil liberties, of course). This might also require the federal government (not states) to draw the district lines for House seats. Or, more to my liking, we could move to either a list-PR or SNTV system using multimember districts.
Either way, it simply doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense (to me) for states to have such a significant impact on how federal elections are handled. If they want autonomy from the federal regulations, then the simplest way is just to hand over those responsibilities to a federal electoral authority. After all, most countries (even federal ones) have one. They seem to prefer professional, impartial election management staff to running things by ad hoc assortments of partisans and amateurs.
In any other democracy, voters nationwide would have cast their votes on the same kind of balloting equipment, subject to the same rules.
The parties would have had a minimal role in supervising the election, and certainly would not have been allowed to ask for rule changes as the vote occurred.
The voting would have been overseen by a national election commission, not by local judges, who might be nonpartisan — but who very well might not.
Americans worry more about voter fraud than do voters in other countries, because they are the only country without a reliable system of national identification.
In no other country, including federal systems such as Germany, Canada and Australia, does the citizen’s opportunity to vote depend on the affluence and competence of his or her local government.
In every other democracy, the vote is the means by which the people choose between the competing political parties — not one more weapon by which the parties compete.
The United States is an exceptional nation, but it is not always exceptional for good. The American voting system too is an exception: It is the most error-prone, the most susceptible to fraud, the most vulnerable to unfairness and one of the least technologically sophisticated on earth. After the 2000 fiasco, Americans resolved to do better. Isn’t it past time to make good on that resolution?
This semester I had a chance to develop and teach a seminar on electoral systems and party systems. The course has been heavily metrics based, with a strong emphasis on how to calculate a number of metrics used in the study of elections and parties.
So far so good, with most of the students successfully learning how to calculate the effective number of parties and electoral volatility. They were tested on this on the midterm: I was pleased that, given a table of data (for a fictitious country, Oz), they were able to calculate both measures in under an hour (while also working on a short essay question).
For the final exam, I’m upping the ante: Given a table of election results, they’ll have to calculate the seat distribution using a “largest remainder” system (Imperiali) and a “highest average” system (pure Sainte-Laguë). They’ll then have to also decide wether a 7% electoral threshold would alter the seat distribution in any way.
You know, the saying in France is that in the first round you vote for your friends, you vote for your heart, and in the second round you vote against your enemy. That is to, say what motivates to you go to vote is to eliminate the candidate that you really do not want to see as a president.