‘What’s Not Wrong With The Government?’ Asks Activist With A Plan to Fix It
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
When I asked Josh Silver, co-founder and director of RepresentUs, to tell us what is wrong with politics in America, he responded with a question of his own.
“Devin, what’s not wrong with the government?”
He cites a Princeton paper that concludes, in Silver’s words, “the average American has a statistically insignificant effect on public policy. Laws written supposedly for the benefit of the American people, in reality, are written by and for special interests and lobbyists.”
“America’s political crisis has reached a breaking point. Our laws are no longer determined by civil discourse, evidence-based policymaking, or the will of the people,” he says.
It may not sound like it, but Silver is an optimist. He thinks we can fix what is wrong with the system. “All is not lost,” he says, noting that a movement began to take hold four years ago.
Silver has greater faith in state and local government than in the Federal government. He takes heart in knowing that states run Federal elections. That means that changing the rules at the state level can have an impact in Washington.
Josh Silver, RepresentUs CREDIT: AMANDA HERMAN
He argues that until we fix our democracy, we can’t fix much else. “People who care about taxation, do care about the environment, do care about education or inequality–these people are starting to realize that their issues are stuck until we fix this.”
He notes enthusiastically that it was state-by-state efforts that brought an end to interracial marriage laws, that brought gay marriage laws and now are bringing marijuana decriminalization. Regardless of what one may think of those individual issues, the patter is clear, Silver says. State-by-state reform works to bring national reform.
RepresentUs is focused on two major areas: fighting corruption and fixing broken election laws.
Silver, careful to point blame on both sides of the aisle, describes the politics of the past generation this way:
Donald Trump is the latest of a series of presidents who have promised to drain the swamp or fight big money in politics and fixed elections who have failed to do so. Let’s go back to Bill Clinton who promised on the campaign trail to do something similar and had majorities of Democrats in both the House and Senate for the first two years of his presidency. He sat on his hands. Barack Obama, same thing. Donald Trump, same thing. If you give George W. Bush any credit at least he didn’t even promise to he didn’t do it. But the fact is that both major parties are captured by big money interests.
While he decries money in politics, he is not fixated on the Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 decision on Citizens United, which extended free speech protections to corporations, effectively opening the floodgates for special interest money in elections. To overturn the ruling, a constitutional amendment is required. “It’s a long road ahead.”
Within the arena of fighting corruption, RepresentUs works to “close the revolving door” that allows politicians to leave office and immediately launch a lobbying career. The organization also works to reform campaign finance and ethics rules.
Fixing Broken Election Laws
Gerrymandering is a lightning rod issue for Silver. He’s clearly pleased that most people now seem to understand it is a bad thing. Congressional districts are carved up by the party in control in a state to ensure that most districts are uncompetitive.
Even in a state with near balanced red and blue voters, partisan redistricting can guarantee the party with a small majority of voters a large majority of the representation. Furthermore, 86% of congressional districts are uncompetitive in the general election, meaning that the only real competition is in the primary, thus favoring more extreme partisans—on both sides—who appeal to their respective bases rather than to more moderate voices nearer the center.
But nothing seems to get Silver more excited than the wonky topic of ranked choice voting, which is now being used in 12 U.S. cities, the state of Maine and eight other countries.
Ranked choice voting eliminates the need for a run-off election if no one gets 50% of the votes. Because every voter ranks all the options—where more than two are present—an instantaneous election is effectively held where the biggest loser is effectively removed from the ballot. The votes cast for that candidate are then allocated to the voter’s second choice.
Purely for the sake of illustration, consider the 1992 Presidential election. If ranked choice voting had been used, the country might well have had a different president. (Of course, this would not only require using ranked choice voting but also eliminating the Electoral College and perhaps other constitutional changes.) Then-Governor Bill Clinton received approximately 44% of the votes and President George H.W. Bush received 38% and entrepreneur Ross Perot won almost 19%.
Under ranked choice voting, ballots cast for Perot would be ignored but would be counted for their 2nd choice candidate. If the Perot votes were split down the middle for Clinton and Bush, the 1992 election outcome would have been unchanged. Each of the two major party candidates would simply add the same number of votes to his respective tally. If, however, Bush had received 65% of the Perot votes, he would have enjoyed a second term.
“There’s no more so-called spoiler effect. No more picking the lesser of two evils. It’s completely transformative,” Silver effuses. “It even fosters moderation and civility because candidates are trying to get your second-place vote if they can’t get your first.”
“And if we change incentives such that politicians are incentivized to appeal to the public interest instead of the special interests–as we make it so that public interest-minded candidates actually have a path to victory and they run and they win–well that’s where it starts to get exciting,” Silver says.
Like candidates, RepresentUs works on a donation model. Split into two nonprofits, a 501(c)(3) charity and 501(c)(4) social welfare organization. Its 2019 budget is $8 million, Silver says. The organization has 35 employees working in five states.
“We are supported by more than 55,000 individual donors from across the political spectrum, most of whom give $100 or less. As you might imagine, we are firm believers in transparency, and our full donor list is available at Represent.Us/donor-list,” Silver said.
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