06 May 2004


I have this little fantasy about restructuring the United States Senate. There are articles in both the latest Harper's and in Slate a little while ago (and later, in the New York Times) arguing that we should just abolish the Senate altogether, because it defies the “one man, one vote” principle of equal representation. I agree with the critique, but I have a better idea for the Senate than abolition.

One of the problems with representative democracy as practiced now is that the representatives all speak for blocs of population determined geographically. When people hack the geographic representation system to give representation to minorities, it's called “gerrymandering” and derided as an abuse of the system. It is an abuse ... of the spirit of geographic representation. But it is not necessarily an abuse of the spirit of representative democracy.

Indeed, the American left has worked hard in the last few decades to redistrict government at various levels to create districts that give local majorities to racial minorities, bringing more color to the faces seen in the halls of government. Much lefty ink has been spilled asserting how this is essential to a truly representative political process. Here in San Francisco, this kind of redistricting of the electoral process for the city Board of Supervisors is widely regarded as a great progressive victory.

Geographic divisions are a logical way to group people for representation, for a number of reasons, but need not be the only way. Contemporary communications and transportation technology mean that there are are a number of significant populations with coherent interests who are thinly distributed across the entire country: not just ethnic minorities but also religious minorities, cultural minorities, political minorities. These populations deserve representation.

For instance, there are seven million motorcyclists in the US. Proportionately, that means ten Bikers in the House of Representatives. I don't necessarily mean ten congresspeople who are bikers, I mean ten who represent the interests of a hypothetical Biker Party. A whimsical example, sure, but I'm not entirely sure that bikers have politics any less coherent than Democrats.

Granted, strong parlimentary representation of minorities can be a bit of a scary proposition. One of the characteristics — a virtue, though also a weakness — of our winner-take-all existing system is that it favours centrist representatives, which makes it easier to get work done. At 435 members, building effective voting coalitions in a House of Representatives teeming with Greens and Libertarians and other fringe players would be a headache.

But then consider the Senate, with only a hundred senators and strong traditions as a deliberative body. A hundred people can get to know each other and talk things through in a way that an organization of four hundred plus cannot.

I propose that we should fix the number of senators at 100, but allow them to be chosen in a nationwide election with completely open write-in ballots. The hundred candidates who get the most votes comprise the Senate. That opens the door to anyone who could scrape together three million votes. Think about that. I'm not sure who would end up in our Senate, but I think they would be a more interesting crowd than we have now.

Sure, one could argue, that means that Pat Robertson is sure to be in the club, and I admit that I don't want that. He already weilds a hefty measure of political power, though, so I'm not sure that this is a new problem. A few nutty Green, Libertarian, evangelical, socialist, and who-knows-what-else senators asking pointed questions would be good for the political discourse. Or at least a lot more fun.

Update: There's an added wrinkle which I've long thought about but didn't include when I first wrote this up, as it seemed like a confusing complication, but as I grow ever more concerned about the un-democratic quality of the Senate the more important I think this becomes: under this scheme Senators should not have equal votes, but rather should hold voting power proportionate to the number of votes she received in the election. Thus the most popular senators would have stronger votes, matching their greater popular support.

That raises the possibility that more frequent elections for the Senate would be a good idea; senators would tend not to lose their seats but would see their strength wax and wane over time. Perhaps the Senate in this scheme should stand for election every four years, off-cycle from the President. If we kept elections for the House of Representatives biannual, those elections could be off-cycle as well, so that you could have a national election every year:

  • 2012: President
  • 2013: House of Representatives
  • 2014: Senate
  • 2015: House
  • 2016: President

That might make the problem of it always being campaign season in America even worse, but that's a problem that needs a different set of solutions having to do with media and money.

The New York Times has a great infographic showing the problem.


Unknown said...

I have an alternative to the part of your plan where senators have a "weight" proportional to the number of votes they got. If each citizen got to nominate three senators, then the ones who win would likely be clustered around a smaller set of nebulous positions or ideologies. These clusters would form the proportional representation that you seek, but without giving any one person more than an equal share of the vote.

J'Carlin said...

I like the biennial national senatorial campaign on off years. And voters nominate X I think 10 is the right number. Each would have a yes or no vote. Nays votes would be subtracted from yeas and 100 top net yeas would be elected. Voters can allocate yea and nay any way they want. Given the current crop I would probably have 4 yeas and 6 nays but I suspect the nays would become rare in the future.