Saturday, December 8, 2007

District Only Voting: Constituencies & Voting Systems

"If the nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be." - Thomas Jefferson

Politics is a profession; a serious, complicated and, in its true sense, a noble one. - Dwight D. Eisenhower

Wouldn't you know that simple ideas like constituencies and voting systems really aren't simple?
There is an amazing amount of stuff written on these subjects available by surfing the Internet.

Here's a few phrases that may illustrate this point, plus some of my thoughts at the end:

'The most common meaning of 'constituency' occurs in politics and means either the group of people from whom an individual or organization hopes to attract support, or the group of people or geographical area that a particular elected representative or group of elected representatives represents.'

"In the United States, electoral constituencies for the federal House of Representatives are known as congressional districts (of which there are presently 435; the number can be increased so long as it does not exceed the constitutional limit of one per 30,000 citizens), while the constituencies for the variously named state legislatures go by a variety of names (and have differing numbers).

Long standing practice, reinforced and modified by several U.S. Supreme Court decisions, require the equalization of populations of constituencies after each decennial census, a process known as redistricting.
When driven by partisan bodies, this process opens up the possibility of gerrymandering for political or factional advantage.

Gerrymandering cannot be used to the disadvantage of any specific racial group (e.g., placing a predominantly African-American community in several districts to dilute the vote would be unconstitutional), but is perfectly legal to dilute the voting strength of the opposing party.

A Pennsylvania legislator long active in redistricting issues, State Rep. Mark B. Cohen of Philadelphia, said that "In election years, constituents choose their legislative officials. In redistricting years, legislative officials usually try to choose their future constituents."

'The state of Louisiana uses Runoff voting for all House and Senate seats. All candidates (regardless of party affiliation) run on a single ballot in the general election in what is referred to as an "open primary" (thus, all Democrat candidates compete against all Republican candidates and whoever else may be running). If a candidate receives a majority of the vote, he or she is automatically elected. Otherwise, the top two finishers (again, regardless of party affiliation) go to a Runoff election, held approximately a month later, with the winner in the Runoff earning the seat. It is possible for both candidates to be from the same party, but in practice a Runoff usually features one Democrat and one Republican.

'One possible reason straight-ticket voting has declined among the general electorate in past years is the power of incumbency has risen. Also, there are very few places where there still is a one-party rule.

.... local parties tend to run very weak party identifiers for something such as mayor or town council. So at local levels like this, candidates must actually fight for their votes for local office.'

Bellingham used to have Ward-only voting, but that practice was changed to the system in place today.

Now, representatives from each of the 6 Wards must live in that Ward, but are elected in the General Election, by Citywide vote because they are supposed to represent the entire City - which is a municipal corporation.

If more than 2 candidates seek any seat, they must reduce that number to 2 by a Primary Election that is voted on only by people living in that Ward.
This practice makes sure that Ward representatives know their Wards, but also pass the test of being the representative of the entire populace.

That seems to be the best of both worlds to me.

I think its good for candidates to have to run hard for their seats, because that's how voters get to know them and where they stand on the issues- and vice versa!

Most of those issues are either city-wide or have some city-wide applicability, so as many voters as possible need to meet and question candidates so intelligent decisions are more likely to be made.

If candidates start out knowing they must be accountable, they will likely remember that once they are in office.

I didn't use to think that way, because I didn't know much based on actual experience.
Also, because I was first appointed to office, that gave me instant incumbency when I did run for election.
Partly because of my incumbency, I attracted no opposition in my first election and gained 4 more years in office just by running.
From that I was tempted to think that elections were a waste of time, that it was better to spend the time and energy actually doing the job than campaigning for it.

I was wrong!
Campaigning for office is important!

I found that out the second time I ran for re-election, and had an opponent.
Campaigning focuses you like nothing else.
It is demanding but critical to meet people face to face, listen to their concerns and try to respond thoughtfully.
You tend to remember that experience, believe me!

Some still feel campaigns are artificial, rigged, unfair and debilitating.
And you know what they are right!
But, that doesn't mean campaigns aren't necessary.
It just reinforces the point, because the candidate's mettle gets tested in the spotlight of public attention!
What better training for public office?
So rather than making it easier to get elected, we ought to insure it is difficult.
That may weed out some folks, but the ones that pass the test will have earned their positions.

But one little matter that is difficult to address remains.
The power of incumbency!
Is it good or bad?
It could be either, depending upon the elected official.
But some level of term limits might help. Say 2 or 3 terms, max?
If its the official's 'time to go', it can help.
If not, others are encouraged to step up and run for office.

I think some periodic turnover in elected officials is a good thing.
That's because voter representation ought to be applied to the future as well as the past.
New people mean new ideas, energy and dialogue.
That should be considered healthy in any political setting

Ninety eight percent of the adults in this country are decent, hardworking, honest Americans. It's the other lousy two percent that get all the publicity. But then, we elected them. -Lily Tomlin

When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become President; I'm beginning to believe it. -Clarence Darrow