Multi-member districts: More choices, more voices (Guest Blog Post: Ryan Kiesel)

kiesel-updated-300x200Ryan Kiesel is Executive Director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, as well as a former member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, alt-music aficionado and fierce truth-to-power speaker. Ryan‘s comments do not necessarily reflect the views of the ACLU of Oklahoma. This is one of a series of responses to OK Policy’s blog posts on Oklahoma’s “broken democracy”.

At a recent forum on the upcoming elections in Oklahoma, an audience member posed a question asking why substantive issues are non-existent in campaigns. In response, a member of the panel, a well-known and respected political consultant, blamed the voters. If the voters wanted to hear robust debates on the issues of the day, he claimed, then they would reject campaigns that are essentially copy-and-paste jobs.

That’s like owning an ice cream shop that only serves vanilla, and then being surprised to learn vanilla is your best seller.

The truth is voters make the choices they make because they have very few options at the ballot box. The current single-member district system of electing legislators creates a very strong disincentive to increasing those choices. It is time we reverse this incentive system, and that process begins with understanding the single-member majority system, killing it, and replacing it with a plan that encourages more voices and more choices for voters.

Under Oklahoma’s single-member district system, a candidate must receive a plurality of votes to earn a seat in the Legislature. In a two-party system like Oklahoma’s, that usually means a candidate must receive ’50 percent +1′ of the votes to claim victory. Practically speaking, hitting that high mark is not that difficult as long as candidates don’t let on that they have any original ideas and don’t stray far from the generic script of worn-out talking points that regurgitate a bland wad of polling results and conventional wisdom.

This broken election system directly leads to a broken government. The anxiety felt by far too many elected officials has paralyzed our government’s ability to respond rationally to matters of enormous significance. We simply cannot continue to hope that a majority of those candidates who appealed to everyone and stood for nothing will grow into legislators with convictions, courage and a willingness to compromise.

Eliminating the single-member district plurality system should be our first step towards fixing our broken democracy. For at least one, if not both, legislative chambers in Oklahoma, we should replace the existing districts with districts representing larger constituencies, but with multiple members from each district.

For example, the Oklahoma House of Representatives currently has 101 districts. Each Representative represents approximately 37,000 constituents. Under a multi-member district plan, the number of districts would decrease and the number of constituents per district would increase, along with the number of Representatives per district.

One plan might reduce the number of districts to 20, and the number of constituents per district would be around 190,000. But instead of one Representative attempting to represent the inevitable diversity of viewpoints, perspectives and interests of the district, the district would elect five representatives.

Under this proportional representation system, each district’s five representatives would be selected by earning a spot among the top five vote recipients at the ballot box. While there are several ways to conduct an election using proportional representation, the most promising is the single-transferrable vote, also known as choice voting. Choice voting allows voters to rank candidates by preference. Whereas winner-take-all elections award 100 percent of power to the candidate with the most votes, regardless of what percentage of total votes that represents, proportional voting allows voters in a minority to win a fair share of representation.

By eliminating the incentive for a campaign strategy that appeals to everyone, and as a result says nothing, candidates could be competitive by promoting more nuanced appeals to smaller groups of voters. This would increase political diversity in our legislature across the political spectrum, from libertarians to liberals and everyone who has ever felt like appealing to their legislator was an effort in futility. After all, with five members to choose from, there would be an exponentially better chance that one of those Representatives would be open to your perspective on an issue and would carry your concerns at the Capitol.

That said, it would not necessarily change the balance of power, but it would ensure that more voices are at the table. And with a significant reduction to the looming pressure politicians currently feel to appease 50 percent of the voters back home, lawmakers would have greater flexibility to stand for something and make tough decisions.

Such a fundamental break with the status quo may seem like a hard sell, but it doesn’t have to be. The bottom line is more choices and more voices. I think that’s something that, with the right support, at least 50 percent + 1 of Oklahomans could get behind.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here. 

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The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

3 thoughts on “Multi-member districts: More choices, more voices (Guest Blog Post: Ryan Kiesel)

  1. Mr. Kiesel’s proposal is flawed because it is based on a very misguided interpretation of a problem. Here are some facts that must first be considered.

    As of January 15, 2014, there were 854,329 registered Republican voters in Oklahoma, compared to 885,609 Democratic voters and 238,874 voters registered as independent or with other parties. And yet, Republicans hold the clear majority of statewide seats and this is likely to continue through the next election. If everyone marched in lock-step with our party affiliations, then why aren’t there more Democrats holding statewide seats (or federal seats)? To further complicate this situation, Oklahoma has a closed primary system. This means that the large number of Democratic voters (and “other” voters) don’t even participate in the Republican primaries, but yet Republicans are elected by an overwhelming majority. The fact is that those 238,874 voters who are not Republicans or Democrats *do* have significant influence on elections. Otherwise, Oklahoma would likely be a very blue state (much like we used to be).

    Another flaw with Mr. Kiesel’s proposal is the reality that far too many house district seats in Oklahoma draw no opponents (from any party) and far too many legislators walk into their seats with no election or opposition. If Mr. Kiesel’s premise were true that there are a large number of effectively “disenfranchised” voters, then why aren’t any of those voters or groups seeking to run for those seats? Perhaps Mr. Kiesel is drawing a very incorrect conclusion. Maybe we have too many legislative seats and this has led to apathy and confusion. Perhaps a wiser choice is to change our current structure in our state constitution for the house and eliminate a few seats, rather than create a Frankenstein system of representation. However, we all know that eliminating seats would be virtually impossible and unlikely.

    The “single transferrable vote” (STV) defies current political and social reality in this country. How many voters walk into the booth today and see (and elect) candidates and this is the first time they see the name is in the voting booth? Look at Oklahoma’s ballot in the current election, and note how many names are included and the number of choices a voter must make. Do we really believe that if we complicate it further and require voters to rank candidates (and very likely add many more names that are unrecognized) that the voters’ choices will improve? This reminds me of many political theories and ideologies that require a certain amount of “magic dust” to bridge the gap to reality. The STV concept would also obfuscate and blur direct accountability of elected officials. The statistical “mashup” would eventually lead voters to believe that they no longer have direct accountability or representation in elected offices, and ultimately lead to a weakened legislative branch which would in turn lead to the potential for a disproportionately more powerful administrative branch (which our Founders did not want).

    The Founding Fathers struggled with many concepts when they crafted our nation’s founding documents. They made many compromises. They recognized the need for stability and security of the new nation, but also recognized the need to build in strong mechanisms to protect individual personal rights and liberties. This is reflected in the structure and makeup of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. The House is structured based on proportional representation, whereas the Senate is not. The original framers recognized that proportional representation had benefits and risks, so they included this concept in the larger framework, but they also built in a system of checks and balances.

    We only need to look at history, and in this case, Elbridge Gerry, who was a powerful statesmen and important figure in the founding of our nation (and for whom the term “gerrymandering” is named after). He is worth “googling”. Like most of his contemporaries, he recognized the need for some type of central government authority, being “fully convinced that to preserve the union, an efficient government was indispensably necessary.” They fully recognized that our government needed some structure and that the closer we drifted toward a cacophony, the more likely we would eventually fall to a foreign power or enemy or simply collapse internally. Yet the founders did not want the central government to be too powerful, as it would open the door for despotism. The solution was a balance and a compromise. The founders knew it was not a perfect system, but it was the best way to ensure freedom, liberty, and survival for the nation.

    We also have to remember that today we already have a more directly involved electorate than was possible during the early days of the nation. The Founding Fathers were afraid to completely turn over the reins of government to the populace and even disallowed the populace from directly electing the members of the U.S. Senate. This remained unchanged until 1913. But we have to remember how far we have come in this country. We have been able to successfully reconcile many imperfect flaws in our form of government and broaden the electorate to include virtually everyone in the nation.

    Continual civil debate and improvement of our system is important and necessary, but radical jumps toward complicated chaotic electoral policies is not a good move and a major step backwards.

  2. First, let me say that I agree with you that closed primaries, especially for independent voters, are a huge problem.
    My argument is not that the partisan affiliation is not accurately reflected in the legislature, and it certainly isn’t my intent to see the balance of power reflect the registration numbers at any given time. My argument is that a choice between two major party candidates vying for a large portion of the electorate does not give most Oklahomans a real choice at the ballot box. It also means that the two candidates have every incentive to steer away from nuanced platforms and debates. By increasing the number of choices and lowering the admission ticket to the legislature, we will make it much more likely that candidates run on actual platforms and not platitudes.

    I strongly disagree that the number of vacant seats exists because of apathy or confusion. They exists in large part because of gerrymandering of safe districts, closed primaries, real and perceived incumbent advantages, and the $100k+ price ticket for many districts. I’m willing to take the Pepsi challenge that if we get candidates off- script, running on distinct platforms, and incentivize smaller groups to organize with the chance of actually earning a seat at the table, that we’ll see greater enthusiasm, more people willing to run for office and increased voter participation, not less.

    The idea that voters aren’t smart enough to handle increased choices just doesn’t hold water with me.

    Bringing me to accountability. Just look at the current campaign cycle that ends today. As commentators have said far better than myself, we are much better at campaigning than we are at governing. The current system rewards good campaigns, not necessarily good candidates. Hell, some of the campaign strategies even depend on keeping voters from voting. Would the average voter know everything about every candidate on a proportional representation ballot? Of course not. But I’m not aiming for perfect, I’m shooting for better. High information campaigns, more incentive for grass-roots organization, would help mitigate the impact big money can have on a race and will give us a better informed electorate than we currently have. They don’t need to be smarter, they just need better information.

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