Thursday, February 26, 2015

2015 Election in United Kingdom Likely to Deliver Disproportionate Results (and a Hung Parliament), Again.


Odds are, according to British bookies with their fingers on the nation's pulse, that the United Kingdom is headed for another five years of coalition government. Like the 2010 election, the upcoming May 2015 election is shaping up to deliver no single party a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

The absence of a single majority party in the nation's lower house is a big deal in the UK. In its Westminster parliamentary system, a majority of members of the House of Commons must be aligned with the Prime Minister at all times. The Prime Minister, and the Cabinet he or she has chosen, only serve as long as they continue to command the "confidence of the House".

When one of Britain's cohesive and disciplined political parties controls a majority of the seats, the Westminster system provides for a stable and efficient government centered around a powerful Prime Minister. This form of the Westminster System has been the envy of many American political scientists as well as former President Woodrow Wilson. However, when no single party controls a majority, the Westminster system becomes unstable. Terms like "hung parliament" and "minority government" are uttered in hushed unsettled tones steeped with trepidation, for all that is needed to unseat a Prime Minister is a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister dismissed by a no confidence motion most recently, James Callaghan, was dismissed in 1979 during the last period of  you guessed it   minority government.
Former Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, being given a tour of the House of Commons in 2013.
(DoD phot, Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo via Wikimedia Commons)
If no party wins a majority, Election 2015 will ring in the second consecutive term of minority government in the House of Commons. With the exception of a short, tumultuous period in the 1970s, which saw a rapidly depreciating British Pound, unrest in Northern Ireland and industrial strife during the Winter of Discontent, the United Kingdom had witnessed a long period of strong majority governments since World War II. However, strong majority governments in the future seem less likely.

The recent hung parliament, and the likelihood that the next parliament will also be "hung", ought to be understood as a failure of winner-take-all (called "first-past-the-post" in Britain) to deliver on one of its key promises. One of the few advantages of winner-take-all, other than the system's simplicity, is its ability to produce decisive legislative majorities. In a nation with  an entrenched two-party system and little spatial diversity, winner-take-all can often deliver decisive legislative majorities (at the expense of the representation of minorities, mind you). However, in increasingly diverse nations, like the United Kingdom (as well as Canada), in which regional parties and identity politics have significant appeal, winner-take-all can no longer tick this box.

The case against winner-take-all was already strong. With the failure of the system to deliver stable majority governments, the case against winner-take-all has become even stronger.

For decades, winner-take-all elections in the United Kingdom have delivered parliaments that are wildly disproportionate to the ballots cast by voters. In the aftermath of the 1983 election, in which Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party won 61% of House of Commons seats with 42% of the vote, while the SDP-Liberal Alliance won less than 4% of seats with over a quarter (25%) of the vote, Britons began calling for proportional representation (PR). Early proponents included Monty Python's John Cleese.  Since then, seats won have remained disproportionate to votes cast. In 2010, the two major parties both won larger shares of seats than their vote shares: The Conservatives received 36% of the vote and won 47% of the seats; the Labour Party received 29% of the vote and won 40% of the seats.

An academic measure, the Gallagher Index, offers some comparison. Since 1983, the Gallagher Index has not dropped below 13.55 in British Elections. By contrast, during the same time period, the Gallagher Index for US House of Representative elections has never been more than 8 (even in the 2014 House of Representatives election, in which Republicans won 51% of the vote and 57% of the House seats).

In 2010, over half of all votes were wasted, cast for losing candidates. Unsurprisingly given this mistranslation of votes into seats, voter turnout in Britain has declined in recent decades: from an average around 75% of the voting age population in the 1970s and 1980s, down to 61% in 2010.The winner-take-all system, in combination with low voter turnout, meant that, in 2001, only 99 Members of Parliament (15% of 359 MPs) were elected with the support more than a third of eligible voters (Electoral Reform Society, 2004, p.6).

While the movement for electoral reform suffered a setback during the 2011 referendum on ranked choice voting, the 2015 Elections will likely once again reinvigorate the movement, showing that PR is the only way to fix what ails British politics.


Monday, February 23, 2015

No, we do not have an explicit right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. Yes, we need one.

On February 21st, the Democratic National Committee's (DNC) Executive Committee unanimously passed a resolution calling for an explicit, individual right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. Donna Brazile, DNC Vice Chairwoman, submitted the resolution. The unanimous vote that followed marked another big step forward as support for a right to vote amendment continues to gain momentum in local and national discussions around voting rights.

Many, however, were shocked to find out that we do not in fact have a right to vote in our Constitutional already. This was evident on Twitter over the weekend:




To address the collective chorus of "Wait. What?" from this weekend, the answer is no. Contrary to popular belief, Americans do not have a constitutional right to vote. The US is one of just 11 democratic nations in the world without a right to vote in their constitution. While various constitutional amendments prevent against discrimination at the polls based on age, sex, and race, there is no affirmative right to vote to protect Americans at the polls. The fact that we needed those amendments in the first place, and even further legislation in the 1960s to prevent discriminatory practices like poll taxes, highlights the fact that we don't have an explicit right to vote granted in our Constitution.

While it is true that a majority of states have a right to vote enumerated in their state constitution, these state-level protections have proven weak without clear federal protections to back them up. State courts often cite federal precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court under the federal Equal Protection Clause, and only evaluate whether laws are written to be administered equally. When this happens, laws that are applied "equally" to all citizens, but still infringe on individual voting rights, are allowed by our courts. This merging of state constitutions and the U.S. Constitution in a court's decision-making process is known as "lockstepping," and is a product of the absence of an explicit right to vote at the federal level.

This federal constitutional omission is no small oversight. Wisconsin's Supreme Court demonstrated lockstepping in a decision leading up to the 2014 midterm elections. Additionally, several other key court decisions prior to the midterms highlighted the fact that Americans are vulnerable to restrictive laws that keep eligible voters from the polls. Without action, voting laws and political interests will continue to pose a threat as democracy is taken from the people and put in the hand of politicians.

A right to vote amendment would provide the ultimate protection for voters. It would empower Congress to enact minimum electoral standards to guarantee the highest degree of inclusivity, and consistency across the nation. It would also give our courts the authority to keep politicians in check when they try to game the vote for partisan reasons. See FairVote's legal analysis on the impact that an explicit, individual right to vote would have here.

To learn more about the movement to establish a constitutional right to vote, visit RightToVoteAmendment.com. You can also check out FairVote's Promote Our Vote project and build support by passing a "Right to Vote" resolution in your community.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Right to Vote Amendment Secures Unanimous Backing of DNC Executive Committee

More than a decade ago, FairVote became the leading institutional voice calling for establishing an explicit individual right to vote in the U.S. Constitution, joining academic stars like law professors Jamin Raskin and Lani Guinier and historian Alex Keyssar, journalists like John Nichols and Katrina vanden Heuvel, and elected officials like Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr and his tireless aide Frank Watkins.

We held a major conference organized around the vision of a constitutional right to vote in November 2003 and many subsequent events over the years, including with this focused case for the amendment earlier this month by our legal analyst Dania Korkor. We advised drafters of the first right to vote amendment language in 2001 as well as the latest version, HJ Resolution 25 sponsored by Wisconsin's Mark Pocan, Minnesota's Keith Ellison and a growing number of other Members. (See our analysis on amendment language.) We've been particularly focused on how the drive for such an amendment can promote immediate local changes to protect, promote and expand suffrage, with our Promote Our Vote campaign resolutions having stirred concrete actions for change in several jurisdictions.

We believe that the nation coming together to establish such an amendment would go a long way to end the "voting wars" that plague us today. When rules are unclear, it is all too easy for those playing the game to try to push the definition of those rules in their favor. By committing to the fundamental nature of the right to vote, our political leaders can instead focus on what they should do in elections: trying to earn votes from eligible voters, rather than trying to game voter eligibility and access.

For this reason, we're thrilled to see rising support for the amendment, whose key backers of the years have grown to include the Advancement Project, Rainbow PushColor of Change and makers of the movie Electoral Dysfunction (see Mo Rocca cleverly explain the issue). Our general website on the issue, RightToVoteAmendment.com, highlights new voices and energy for the amendment, including a new petition drive backed by Campaign for America's Future, DailyKos, FairVote Action and more.

This weekend, a major new player emerged: the Democratic National Committee. At its winter meeting, the DNC's executive committee unanimously passed a powerfully worded resolution proposed by DNC Vice Chair of Voter Expansion and Protection Donna Brazile that supported the amendment and called for local, state and national action.

This issue should not be one of just the left or just the right. It should not be about whether voting is a responsibility and privilege: of course it is, but above all it is a right.  Indeed, the U.S. citizenship test, according to this report (see question #87) often includes this question

     Q: What is the most important right granted to U.S. citizens?
     A: The right to vote;

The right to vote is indeed the right that grounds all other rights. Let's treat it with the respect it deserves. Let's come together to put an explicit right to vote in the U.S. Constitution and statutory changes in its spirit like the Voting Rights Amendment Act.

As reported by blogger Brad Friedman, the full resolution as adopted is below:

The following Resolution will be considered by the DNC Executive Committee at its meeting in Washington, DC, on February 20, 2015.

Submitted by: Donna Brazile, DNC Vice Chair/District of Columbia
Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, DNC Chair/Florida
Christine Pelosi, California
Maria Elena Durazo, DNC Vice Chair/California
Anita Bonds, Chair, District of Columbia
Leah Daughtry, At-Large/New York
Bel Leong-Hong, At-Large/Maryland
Minyon Moore, At-Large/District of Columbia
Virgie Rollins, National Federation of Democratic Women/Michigan
Lottie Shackelford, At-Large/Arkansas
James Zogby, At-Large/District of Columbia

Resolution on a Right-to-Vote Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
WHEREAS, in a democracy, the right to vote is a moral imperative, the most fundamental legal right and is protective of all other rights; and
WHEREAS, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act he said, "The right to vote is the basic right, without which all others are meaningless"; and
WHEREAS, each state, except for the State of Arizona, has explicitly enshrined the right to vote with at least some level of protection in its state constitution; and
WHEREAS, nowhere in the United States Constitution is there an explicit declaration of the right to vote, which weakens protection in federal courts and undercuts state voting rights protections due to state courts often "lock stepping" rights to the level of support provided federally; and
WHEREAS, the United State Supreme Court has called the right to vote a fundamental right, this fundamental right should be explicitly guaranteed to all Americans in the U.S. Constitution; and
WHEREAS, as President Barack Obama, as a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, began each of his constitutional law classes sharing with his students the surprising fact that an explicit "federal individual right to vote" is not in the U.S. Constitution; and
WHEREAS, the only reference to an individual right to vote in the original U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights is the requirement that any citizen qualified to vote for a member of a state's most "numerous house of the state legislature" is eligible to vote for Members of the House of Representatives; and
WHEREAS, the Constitution has been amended 17 times since the passage of the Bill of Rights and 7 of those amendments pertain to voting - 14th, 15th, 17th, 19th, 23rd, 24th and 26th - but none of them add the explicit, fundamental, affirmative, individual, citizenship or federal right to vote to the Constitution; and
WHEREAS, three amendments outlaw discrimination in voting, whether on the basis of race (15th) with the 1965 Voting Rights Act serving as the implementing legislation for this amendment 95 years later, sex(19th), or age (26th); and
WHEREAS, a right to vote constitutional amendment would fulfill the promise of the 15th, 19th and 26th Amendments; and
WHEREAS, of the 119 nations that elect their public officials using some form of democratic elections, 108 have the right to vote in their constitution, but the United States is one of the 11 nations - including Australia, the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, India, Indonesia, Nauru, Samoa, and the United Kingdom - that does not explicitly contain a citizen's right to vote in its constitution; and
WHEREAS, with the exception of certain federal laws such as the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 and the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act of 2009, the U.S. has virtually no national uniform standards for voting systems controlled by the states; and
WHEREAS, since voting is a state right, with virtually no national uniform standards, we have ended up with multiple and varied election systems in the 50 states (plus the District of Columbia), 3,143 counties (or county equivalents), and about 13,000 local voting jurisdictions that administer about 186,000 precincts, all organized and controlled and managed by local election officials with 86% of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act Preclearance objections involving local, not national or state, voting issues; and
WHEREAS, the United States Supreme Court has unfortunately undermined the right to vote in recent years, notably in its 2013 decision of Shelby County v. Holder which made the preclearance requirement ineffective and, as Freedom Rider, Selma marcher and US Congressman John Lewis so aptly stated, "struck a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act"; and
WHEREAS, since 2014 at least 83 restrictive voting rights bills were introduced in 29 states, and the Brennan Center reports that 21 states have enacted restrictive voting laws since 2011, including North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin, and that in Texas alone this will affect more than 600,000 adult-age citizens who do not have state-issued photo identification; and
WHEREAS, voter turnout in November 2014 represented a smaller percentage of eligible voters than in a congressional election since 1942 , voter turnout in many primary elections in 2014 was at an all-time low in more than half of states holding primaries, and voter turnout in some major cities is now in single digits; and
WHEREAS, a "right to vote" constitutional amendment applies to and should be supported by all Americans because it is (a) nonpartisan - not Democratic, Republican or independent; (b) non-ideological - not liberal or conservative; (c) non-programmatic - it does not require you to support or oppose any particular legislative program(s); and (d) non-special interest - it's application is not limited to minorities, women, labor, business, seniors, lesbians and gays or any other special interest groups;
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) supports amending the United States Constitution to explicitly guarantee an individual's right to vote; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the DNC will encourage state parties to work with state lawmakers and others to access the need to petition for a statewide referendum on the November 2016 general election ballot (and all states where this is possible), advocating to amend the United States Constitution to explicitly guarantee an individual's right to vote; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the DNC specifically supports House and Senate Joint Resolutions which would amend the United States Constitution to explicitly guarantee an individual's right to vote - e.g., such as resolution H.J. Res. 25 introduced into the 114th Congress by Congressman Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the DNC supports H.R. 885 to amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to revise the criteria for determining which States and political subdivisions are subject to section 4 of the Act, as introduced in the 114th Congress by Congressman James F. Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin along with 30 cosponsors, including several members of the Congressional Black Caucus; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the DNC will educate the general public on this issue by drafting and distributing this resolution in support of amending the United States Constitution to explicitly guarantee an individual's right to vote and sharing the resolution with all appropriate governmental officials; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Democratic National Committee encourages other organizations and individuals - e.g., political organizations and leaders, religious organizations and leaders, civil rights organizations and leaders, other civic organizations and leaders, business organizations and leaders, voting rights organizations and leaders, labor organizations and leaders, women's organizations and leaders, youth organizations and leaders, gay and lesbian organizations and leaders, environmental organizations and leaders - to pass organization resolutions to endorse amending the United States Constitution to explicitly guarantee an individual's right to vote; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Democratic National Committee will establish a Right to Vote Taskforce to make recommendations on changes in laws, regulations, and practices designed to improve voter participation and better uphold voting rights in local, state, and national elections and consider changes to recommend to state and federal constitutions, statutes, and regulations; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Democratic National Committee will continue to work with members of Congress and the Obama Administration to repair the Voting Rights Act of 1965; and continue to work with various Secretaries of State and other election administrators to ensure all eligible citizens have access to the ballot box across the country.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Nebraska Considers Changing How It Awards Electoral College Votes

Nebraska is considering changes to the way that it allocates its Electoral College votes, such as going from a congressional district system to a winner-take-all system.

Nebraska is one of two states in the U.S. that awards its electoral votes by congressional district. (Maine is the other.) In 2008, for the first time in almost fifty years, Nebraska split its electoral votes between candidates, awarding one electoral vote to Obama and four to McCain.

Under the proposed legislation (LB 10 sponsored by Republican Senator Beau McCoy), Nebraska would switch to a winner-take-all system. Nebraska would award all of its electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote.

Some have argued that the system that Nebraska currently uses, the congressional district system, is a better, fairer way to allocate electoral votes during presidential elections. FairVote's recently released Fuzzy Math: Wrong Way Reforms for Allocating Electoral Votes finds that the congressional district system in fact fails to support majority rule, decreases competition nationwide, and endangers voter equality.

However, there are other reasons why switching to the winner-take-all system would also be bad. The winner-take-all system has many of the same problems as the congressional district system. Additionally, any state-by-state decision to change the system for allocating electoral votes has the potential to be seen as partisan. Many consider Nebraska's debate over the congressional district system to be partisan. Democrats have argued that Republicans are trying to change the rules because one of the state's electoral votes went to Obama in 2008.

Nebraska has another piece of legislation that would change the way it awards electoral votes for the better: a bill to sign onto the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Sponsored by Senator Tyson Larson (R), LB 112 would have Nebraska join other states in awarding its electoral votes to the winner of the most votes in all fifty states and the District of Columbia.

If Nebraska legislators sign onto the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, the change in Nebraska's rules would not go into effect immediately. Nebraska would only award its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote after enough states have signed onto the same compact. The magic number is 270 electoral votes, the number of electoral votes a candidate needs to win the presidential election. The signing states must collectively hold 270 electoral votes to change the way states elect the president nationwide.

FairVote believes that using the national popular vote to elect the president is the best option available to states. It ensures whichever candidate wins the most votes nationwide will also win the presidential election, that every voter is equally valuable to candidates, and that candidates compete nationwide, rather than in a small handful of battleground states. And importantly, it avoids partisan bias. Both Democrats and Republicans have endorsed the plan, including the Republican senator in Nebraska who is sponsoring this legislation.

For more information, visit www.fairvote.org.