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H.R. 1 Would leave in place duopoly electoral system that enabled Trump presidency

Speaker Pelosi needs make HR 1 even stronger. 

Speaker Pelosi needs make HR 1 even stronger. 

Despite a violent insurrection and attempted coup by supporters of Donald Trump, Democrats hold the White House and narrow majorities in both Houses of Congress. But U.S. democracy remains in peril.

In January House Democrats introduced H.R. 1 - a sweeping electoral reform bill intended to strengthen voting rights, enhance campaign finance reform, and address government ethics and corruption in politics. But H.R. 1 also contains a poison pill designed to reduce political competition and voter choice, entrenching the polarizing duopoly electoral system that made the Trump presidency possible.

In practice, the U.S. single-seat, winner-take-all system leads to only two electorally-viable parties, forcing most voters into one of two large political camps. The ‘us-vs-them’ mentality that results suppresses nuance and a respect for diversity — and exacerbates divisions in society and politics, as the events of January 6th suggest.

But instead of broadening and deepening our democracy, H.R. 1 Section 5202(a) would make it harder for minor parties and their presidential candidates to appear on the ballot, by raising the fundraising threshold required to earn presidential federal matching funds by 500%, and the minimum number of contributions to reach it by 625%. Without these funds, minor party presidential nominees would have fewer resources to promote their messages, with the public seeing a narrower range of policy approaches and perspectives. 

Onerous state laws passed by Democrats and Republicans also make it difficult for minor parties to gain and maintain ballot status. Minor party presidential candidates often have to qualify themselves and their parties on an election-by-election, state-by-state basis - requiring gathering large numbers of signatures over a short period of time.

These expensive petitions drives are often supported by presidential matching funds earned during the primary season - without which, minor parties and their presidential candidates are unlikely to appear on the general election ballot in many states. Without state party ballot status, neither may many down-ticket minor party candidates qualify for the ballot for Congress and state offices - even for city council, where those are partisan offices.

Onerous state laws passed by Democrats and Republicans also make it difficult for minor parties to gain and maintain ballot status.

Since the Green Party began organizing in the U.S., voters have elected over 1,200 Greens to municipal office, and have cast millions of votes for Green candidates at all levels. H.R. 1’s authors apparently believe the voices of citizens who’ve voted Green (and for other minor parties) don’t matter.

Democrats ignore that when their presidential candidate Al Gore lost Florida by 537 votes in 2000 — and Green candidate Ralph Nader gained 97,488 votes — over 300,000 Florida Democrats voted for Republican candidate George Bush. Instead, Democrats blame the Green Party for their losses, consistently chanting “Vote Blue no matter who!” 

But in 2016, with Trump and Hilary Clinton the least popular major party candidates in modern U.S. polling history, ‘lesser-evilism’ reached its nadir with the historic, ‘evil-of-two-lessers’ Trump presidency. The message? Don’t be surprised what voters will do when they feel deprived of meaningful and representative choice; or if neither major political party offers voters a clear ideology or platform, but does represent a guaranteed ballot line to be taken over.

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Instead of trying to drive minor parties off the ballot, Democrats should put country over party, and support increased voter choice and representation, by promoting a viable multi-party democracy. They can do that by making ballot access easier, supporting ranked-choice voting for president (eliminating the vote-splitting ‘spoiler’ issue) and enacting multi-seat district proportional representation elections for Congress and state legislatures.

The Fair Representation Act, introduced during the last two Congressional sessions, would establish multi-seat district proportional representation for the House of Representatives. It should be a cornerstone of H.R. 1, along with a meaningful increase in the size of House of Representatives, which has been frozen at 435 members since 1911, when the country’s population was 94 million, compared to 330 million today. 

Together these reforms would increase per capita representation for all Americans and provide multi-seat districts with enough seats to be truly proportional and representative of our nation’s diversity. They would also eliminate the deeply problematic gerrymandering and lack of representation that comes from using single-seat districts. By contrast, the half-measure H.R. 1 takes in simply drawing single-seat district lines by a different process, would still leave large numbers of losing voters in every district without representation reflecting their views — a recipe for voter alienation and blowback.

Millions of Americans are relieved our democracy appears to have survived the immediate existential threat posed by the Trump presidency. But even if the Senate had voted to convict Trump for inciting insurrection — and then voted to ban him from running again for Federal office — if the structural conditions that made his 2016 election possible remain in place, a future more competent authoritarian could end our democracy.

When President Biden rolled out his relief package in response to the COVID-19 health/economic crisis, he warned "the biggest risk is not [in] going too’s if we go too small.” 

In confronting our democracy crisis, H.R. 1 is ‘going too small’, by focusing on band-aids to our out-dated winner-take-all electoral system, instead of transforming it. 

If we are going to truly meet the moment, Congress must transcend partisan self-interest and myopic, duopoly-based thinking.

To voting rights and ‘good government’ groups already supporting H.R. 1 - voting matters when your vote can help elect someone who truly represents your views, wherever you live and whatever your views. We can’t achieve that using single-seat-district elections, regardless of what public matching funds are provided.

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That’s why H.R. 1 needs to be amended to promote proportional representation elections, and a viable and representative multi-party democracy overall. That would truly be seizing this historic moment for needed reform.

Michael Feinstein

A shorter, edited version of this appears in The Fulcrum.