Thank you, Katrina vanden Heuvel, for your excellent article “Just Democracy” [July 21/28]. I’ve waited many years for this kind of concise examination of our presidential elections, including the pros and cons of our outdated Electoral College. At last someone has intelligently called attention to the “800-pound gorilla in the room” and given us the opportunity to consider ways to make the elections better reflect the will of the majority.
As a sponsor in the Illinois Legislature of many of the reforms discussed in “Just Democracy,” I felt the list was very good but incomplete. No mention was made of consolidation of local elections or unicameral (one-house) State Legislatures.
Most states have separate elections for municipalities, school districts, community college districts, water and sewage districts, etc. These elections usually have very low turnouts dominated by Republican-type voters. The separate elections are costly and usually financed through property tax. Combining them not only saves precious tax dollars but creates more media and voter interest, spurring greater turnout.
How does a unicameral State Legislature enhance people power? Example: changing Illinois’s current Senate of fifty-nine and 119-member House to a single legislature of 177 members would reduce the population of each district from 105,254 to approximately 60,000. This would make legislators closer to the people, more accountable and less dependent on big-money special interests because it would cost less to campaign.
By saving money these reforms can appeal not just to democracy advocates but also to moderates and conservatives.
Illinois State Representative, 71st District
“Just Democracy” is excellent in many ways, but a call for “radical democracy” it is not. Our basic constitutional structure guarantees that we are far from such a democracy (assuming that a “radical democracy” is actually desirable). There is a fine criticism of the Electoral College, but it is scarcely the most undemocratic feature of our system. And the proposed fix, the Fair Vote proposal, by which the largest states agree to throw their electoral votes to the candidate who comes in first, does not guarantee that the “winner” will be supported by a majority. Only a runoff system would guarantee that the winner could plausibly claim majority support.
As I argue in my book Our Undemocratic Constitution, the most important deviations from democracy include, for starters, the Senate (which gives Wyoming equal voting power with California); the presidential veto (which allows a single person, who may well not have a convincing claim to majority support, to render irrelevant the wishes of anything less than an unusually strong supermajority in both houses of Congress); and an amendment process that makes the US Constitution the hardest-to-change constitution in the world. The difficulty of amendment may help to explain why even someone as devoted to democratic change as vanden Heuvel is so limited in her proposals.