In the wake of the landslide victory Boris Johnson’s of Brexit-focused Tory party and the heating up of the US 2020 Presidential election, we wanted to share the recording and transcript of a conversation I had a few months ago with my fellow Post Carbon Institute board member, Phil Jensen, on the structural flaws in our electoral system.
As The New York Times recently reported, “votes for the pro-Brexit Conservatives had 10 times the effective power of votes for the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats” as a result of the electoral system known as “first past the post.”’ And as Phil and I discuss, a voter in Wyoming has 3.6 times the electoral influence as one in California.
Phil and I discuss some of the biggest structural problems with our elections and Constitution, as well as some of his ideas for solving them. Enjoy.
Jason Bradford: I’m Jason Bradford and I’m here with Phil Jensen of Sebastopol, California. He and I are both members of the board of Post Carbon Institute. Phil has been thinking about issues related to governance and democracy for quite a long time. Phil, tell us a bit about the current moment history and how that got you really thinking about — is this really the right way now, given what we know about the world, that we should be setting up and running a government.
Phil Jensen: At this very time we’ve just had the Mueller report released and the Russia collusion story has been occupying a lot of the mind share and the news share. It’s extremely frustrating to me because, to me, the central culprit in our current predicament in the United States is the U.S. Constitution.
Jason Bradford: That’s blasphemous if you’re a red blooded American…
Phil Jensen: So, right. Yeah. But only because of certain provisions in the Constitution, which we’ll talk about, only because of that is Trump president. And only because of that does he have a Republican-controlled Senate to back him up in making lifetime judicial appointments. And this is all deeply wrong. The people who are wronged by it should rise up in some form and at least say to everyone, this is wrong. This, this should not be happening. This is not democracy.
Jason Bradford: Okay, so let’s get into what, what you mean by democracy and compare that to what we have now.
Phil Jensen: Of course there’s the direct democracy versus representative democracy thing and that that’s not even an issue here. I mean, nobody claims that this is in any sense a direct democracy, but a representative democracy should represent, right? I mean the people, the elected officials — there should be some correspondence between the policies that they put in place and the policies that Americans want. And it has been in the news a certain amount that there are policies that most Americans want that cannot get adopted — relating to healthcare, relating to gun control, a host of these — I mean almost almost everything that the Trump Administration is doing is supported by only a minority.
Jason Bradford: Yeah, that’s interesting. I guess there’s two ways of thinking about it. There’s money in politics, which influences what people get access to, information wise, what they’re predisposed to be warm to, because the lobbyist and all the money and campaigning. So there’s the fact that it costs a lot of money to run for office and then there’s also then maybe just the way that, that we go from an individual citizen to who gets elected. Do you want to distinguish between those at all?
Phil Jensen: Well, it is true that the “money in politics” aspect has gotten a lot of time and attention by people. And there are some groups that push what they call the 28th amendment. (Although other amendments could turn out to be the 28th if we ever get there.) And they talk about “overturn Citizens United” as though that’s the fix we need. And to them I would say no, let’s look at the governmental structures that the Constitution and our traditions, the way we’ve applied the Constitution. For example, the way parties work, the way primaries work, appears nowhere in the Constitution. And in fact we know that the framers thought pretty poorly of parties. They called them factions and they thought this was kind of a bad thing.
Jason Bradford: Wow. So then how did, how did the framers, who are supposed to be so wise, produce something that then led to this two party system? What is it structurally that’s led to the two party system and why is that less fair than other ways?
Phil Jensen: Well, I don’t know how much we can tease out of the history, although it is the case that the electoral college and “vote for one” in general tends to lead to a situation of two parties. Now, the UK has no written constitution and they have some kind of representative democracy, and they actually have two important parties and a third that has much more prominence than any party in the United States. And then they have some fringe parties that actually get seats in Parliament, but so few seats that they’re kind of on the fringe. Although right now, oddly enough, Theresa May — to form a government — had to enter into this arrangement with the Northern Ireland Party, which is a pretty weird situation.
Jason Bradford: So the “vote for one” is a “winner take all.” You can’t say, “my first choice is this, but then my second choice might be this” and who actually goes is weighted by that. Is that what you’re saying?
Phil Jensen: Well, there’s the voting method question and the question of whether most elections are a single constituency — either a state or the country or a legislative House district, electing a single representative. And that’s always going to be a problem because up to 49% of the people can be disappointed with the person who, quote, represents them.
Jason Bradford: Okay. So you’re even saying that even within a particular geography — if you break it up that way — that it’s almost impossible to have a single person represent all views. And in a fair sense what you’d want is some proportionality. So can you get multiple representatives for an area that maybe have a range of views. How would that work?
Phil Jensen: Right. There are a number of ways to do this. There is actually on the table a bill called “Fair Vote” that would change the way House members are elected by grouping house districts into groups of four or five — I’m not sure of the details — running a single election. Which would not be a vote for one election.
Jason Bradford: Or one representative.
Phil Jensen: And the election would result in that number of representatives being seated.
Jason Bradford: Oh, so like, so let’s say it’s five congressional districts each which may be get a representative but they pool. So now you’re five representatives. So, so now our ranked voting, so the top five throughout all those five could go or something like that?
Phil Jensen: Something like that. I mean, the details are less important than the fact that you get away from the single district, single representative vote. And, indeed, I said 49% could be disappointed, but it can be more than that if only a plurality is required, which is I think the case in all house elections. And in most primaries. There are some states that require a runoff in the primary situation. This is a problem in the UK because there are seats that are held by Tories with, you know, 43% of the vote or something. And Labor has something, and Liberal Democrats have something.
Jason Bradford: Interesting. So, so right now I think you’re hitting on fairness as an ideal. People like things when they imagine it’s fair and they also, I think, like to know that their voice is at least being heard. So if things don’t go my way, but I believe that there was a fair process and at least my opinion was listened to and taken into account, it feels a lot better than if I think it’s rigged and I’m not even getting heard. Which is kind of how a lot of people feel about today’s…
Phil Jensen: And being heard in the electoral… I mean, what’s that quote? “Winning isn’t the main thing. Winning is everything.” You actually have to have a representative who represents you. Otherwise, the fact that you cast a vote is a small consolation.
Jason Bradford: Yeah, this is interesting. It’s a way of maybe getting ideas into the mix that in this party system, you know, people rally around their party and it creates these sort of tribal situations where what you’re allowed to think and say within this party really is narrowed, right . So that the two party system makes it harder for a breadth of ideas. You see this now. The Democrats are kind of infighting: Are we going to be more centrist Democrats or are going to be more of the really progressive Democrats? And it’s like the centrists almost don’t want to have the conversation that progressives are trying for right now because it will break unity, and they need unity against the other team.
Phil Jensen: And unity should not be a requirement. The big problem with “vote for one” and geographic districts ends up being a really sick kind of game that people have to play. Somebody says to themselves, “I really want to show my support for the Green party. That really represents my values. But if that leads to a Republican being seated, that’s so wrong that I’ll vote for the Democrat, or not. I mean, they may decide one way or the other. We know that in 2000, it was a handful of Green Party votes in Florida that denied Al Gore. And possible malfeasance, too. But, definitely, if the Green party votes had been shifted to Al Gore, he would have been president. Uh, so that’s a big problem.
Jason Bradford: So there are some clear examples of how unfair this is, related to the situation, let’s say, in the Senate.
Phil Jensen: Well, the Senate is the worst of the lot really. I mean, the Electoral College, despite its problems, has been — and despite the problems with limiting the selection to two parties and other other areas that we could get into on that — but the Senate is really worse than the Electoral College. And I would like to make that point because a lot of people are saying, “Let’s get rid of the Electoral College.” But nobody is complaining about the Senate as much as they should be. If the Constitution were presented to Californians today, they would be fools to ratify it because their voice in the Senate is 1/69th or something of the voice of people in Wyoming. It’s just insanely unfair. And the reason…
Jason Bradford: California. Let’s just do the math. California is like 40 million people. They get two senators. And Wyoming’s like 400,000 people. And they get two senators. Or something like that.
Phil Jensen: Yeah, six or seven hundred thousand. It’s insanely unfair.
Jason Bradford: I had a question about this a bit though. Was there something that the Founding Fathers, in all their wisdom, had where they said, “Look, we want to make sure that there is some kind of parity in geography.” Were they worried about big states…
Phil Jensen: There were some small states that agitated for this. The ratios between the states were not so large and the states were much more their own economy. It was a much more localized economy.
Jason Bradford: Sure, we didn’t have a unified monetary system then. There wasn’t so much trade.
Phil Jensen: Yeah. So the unfairness of it did not seem horrible at that time. The reason that it’s a big problem now is that we have urbanized gradually over the last century and more. And so there are now states with mega cities and states with the population of California, New York, Texas, Florida. And these are the states that are disenfranchised in the Senate heavily. So people should know, for example, that in 2004 and 2008, if you aggregate the votes for all the Senate seats that were up, Americans voted by a ratio of 10 to 9 for a Democratic Senate. In 2012 and 2016, Americans voted by ratio of 5 to 4 for a Democratic Senate. And in 2018, Americans voted by ratio of 4 to 3 — even a steeper ratio and in an off year election — for a Democratic Senate. So the fact that we don’t have a Democratic Senate is a severe indictment of the system. And the fact that that leads judicial appointments that represent this minority view is really bad for democracy and people should see it as that as what it is.
Jason Bradford: Yeah. And it’s interesting, you see it with this two party system also, of course, there’s this incredible period we’re going to enter into now of these really long, expensive primaries.
Phil Jensen: Yes, indeed. What a circus.
Jason Bradford: Any thoughts you have on why? Do we need these giant primaries because of the system we have, as opposed to some other way?
Phil Jensen: Well, I think the primary system is almost unique in the world. And we have, in a sense, it should be said, some of the worst aspects of parties. Our parties are not really membership organizations. Very few people participate in party governance. People just vote in primaries and primaries are paid for by the government, not by the Democratic Committee.
Jason Bradford: Oh really? All the votes… I mean, all the ballots, you’re saying…
Phil Jensen: Yeah, the system of running these elections is done by the government and it benefits these two parties at the expense of independence and dissidents within any one party because it’s this filtering process. So, the last election was a great illustration of this. Other people might disagree, but I think it’s fairly clear that if we’d had some kind of rank choice or approval voting — I could talk about approval voting later — as opposed to “vote for one,” and we’d had a single stage election on which Trump was on the ballot, Clinton was on the ballot, Sanders was on the ballot, and maybe some other Republican — I mean, it could have been quite a few — but that Sanders probably would have won that election, because everybody who voted for Clinton probably would have said, “Well, Sanders is okay. I would be happier with Sanders than Trump,” say. And some Trump voters probably were saying, “I’m sick of these establishment people. And I want somebody who’s saying really revolutionary things, and talking about giving power back to the people.” And who happened not to be scared off by the word socialism. And especially in the states that were crucial — Wisconsin, Michigan — the Sanders message to the Rust Belt had a lot of appeal. But the trouble is we will never know. We will never know how such an election would have gone. And that’s really the crucial offense against democracy.
Phil Jensen: Another aspect of primaries — we don’t just run primaries for president, although those are the most visible –but another aspect is involved in the rise of the Tea Party. So there are many constituencies, many House Districts where, if an extremist wins the Republican primary, that person is almost guaranteed of the seat because so many people feel like “I’m on Team Red. I vote for Republicans and if he’s a crazy person, well that’s too bad.”
Jason Bradford: Yeah. And it’s all been gerrymandered to lock these people in. It’s amazing.
Phil Jensen: And gerrymandering is something that people are complaining about and rightly so, but I think everybody who complains about gerrymandering should also be noting that single member districts are a bad idea.
Jason Bradford: Right? You could compensate a bit for gerrymandering by doing this as well, is what you’re saying. As well as making gerrymandering less pronounced but also…
Phil Jensen: If we’re going to have districts at all, they should be allocated by a fairer process. The lines should be drawn by a fairer process. But if you combine districts and send multiple representatives then it’s not really possible to gerrymander.
Jason Bradford: So let’s look at some of the details of how this would work. Like the alternative to voting for one only, how might this work and how would it lead then to better representation?
Phil Jensen: So there are other voting methods and one is “approval voting.” The simplest version of that is “vote for as many as you want.”
Jason Bradford: So you’re just saying, if there’s 10 people, you say “I’d be okay with these three or these five.”
Phil Jensen: I think a more reasonable system would be maybe four categories, like: 1) enthusiastic yes; 2) I’m okay with that person; 3) I’m just neutral.. no opinion on that person, or 4) no, not my candidate at all. So four stages and it would be easy to work out a way to determine a winner or winners. And again, I stress that it should be in all cases — except where you need to come down to a single person like for president, if you’re electing a president — that it should be winners within a geographic area.
Jason Bradford: In the old days, of course we were much more tied to geography, much more localized in terms of our sphere of influence and people knew each other more based upon geography. And now we seem to be a nation that is more sharing of issues. We’re less tied to place in some ways, which I think has advantages and disadvantages. You can get more ideas from different people. The ability to communicate with people easier around the country is nice, but I also worry about, you know, not having a real tie to a place and digging in and caring for it. Are there different tradeoffs between representation of a place versus representation of ideas and how do you weigh those?
Phil Jensen: That’s a good question and a good point. I don’t think at this point that we get much benefit at all from having geographically-based representation. I don’t think the problems of, say, allocating resources, deciding where highways and bridges are going to go, are problems that need to be solved by horse-trading among elected officials representing those different groups. Indeed, that’s has been a big problem. A bill doesn’t have quite the voting strength that it needs, so the party leader says, “Well, I’ll slip your bridge if you’ll vote for it.” And that’s a corruption of the process.
Jason Bradford: There are like military contractors in every district.
Phil Jensen: Oh, yeah, exactly. Exactly. And that’s, that’s, yeah, that’s has been a big, big problem that people have noted. I think we’d be better off with people with a clear idea of what each elected official stands for in terms of policies. Well, I have a radical proposal. Maybe it’s time to air this. I mean, I don’t expect anybody to consider this very seriously, but I think it would be interesting if at least academics talked about this and argued about it and pointed out disadvantages if they can find any. But if I were designing a constitution for the United States, I would have the power consist in a small body, which I call the Governing Council. Small enough to sit around a round table or a long table in a room — 20 to 40 people, say.
Jason Bradford: So our Congress gets shrunk to that size.
Phil Jensen: Yes. Yeah, because I don’t think we get any benefit. Nobody can be heard in a body of even a hundred or 500.
Jason Bradford: We just gotta turn on C-Span at 2:00 AM, though.
Phil Jensen: Yeah. Who’s in the room? Nobody’s in the room. But the way I would elect this Governing Council would be also completely different from anything we’ve been talking about so far. And that would be by proxy. So each voter would have the chance to select someone to hold that voter’s proxy in the Governing Council. And you would have to get some minimum number of these proxies to have a seat. And then your vote in the Council would be the vote of as many people as voted for you.
Jason Bradford: Oh, wait, so let me break this down for a sec. Let me see if I get this straight. Okay. Say there’s 300 million people in the United States of America. Just use a nice round number. So you’re saying that I can run for the Governing Council. And I live in Corvallis, Oregon. But I would not represent Corvallis, Oregon. I would just be a member of the Governing Council of the United States of America. And if I get a certain threshold of votes, it’s enough to get me in that Council.
Phil Jensen: Right.
Jason Bradford: Okay. And so somebody might get 30 million votes, 10%, and they’re then worth 10% — like own 10% of the stocks or whatever.
Phil Jensen: Right, it’s just the way we do corporate governance, although that’s kind of a dead letter for most corporations because the stock is held by insiders.
Jason Bradford: Right. So that’s the idea. And so if somebody from Waco, Texas decides to run and I think, “Oh, they’re great,” I can vote for them even though I’m in Corvallis, Oregon. And if enough people vote for them, they’ll get on that council.
Phil Jensen: Right. It’s my opinion that keeping things local doesn’t confirm much benefit.
Jason Bradford: At the national level, at least. But you’re not saying to get rid of town councils and mayors, right?
Phil Jensen: No, no, of course. For local, local decisions. Although I have something to say about that too. I mean federalism and the fragmentation of governance can also lead to economic inefficiencies as when a city has to offer a big tax break to a corporation to get them to move there. That’s also an economic distortion. It’s kind of a problem, that should be a problem for economist.
Jason Bradford: Well, that’s interesting. Is it inspired by any historic examples of this, or any places, or where did you come up with it?
Jason Bradford: No, although, you know, Robert Heinlein in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress — which talks about a revolution on the moon, when a little cell of revolutionaries realize that they are shipping all their water back down to Earth… This is the conceit of the book, that they’re growing wheat on the moon, hydroponically and shipping the wheat to the Earth, even though they dry it out, they’re still shipping water and plant nutrients that are never coming back. But anyway, there’s a character in there who suggests when they are designing the constitution for the moon, once they’ve achieved freedom, that maybe they should consider having representatives represent people affirmatively — only those people who voted for them. I don’t think the proxy idea is drawn out, but…
Jason Bradford: So there’s sort of different ways to try to make it more fair. So let’s, let’s maybe try to re summarize those.
Phil Jensen: Let me say another advantage of this system, though, which is that you wouldn’t have to rerun elections. Indeed, it’s kind of odd that we’re running elections now the way we are since we have the Internet. I mean, we know how to gather information from people without having a special day when they go into a polling place and possibly wait in line, especially if people in the city don’t want certain people to vote. They wait in line for two hours. But we have the Internet, right? I mean we know how to gather information from people in a less inefficient way. But with proxy voting, we wouldn’t actually even need to do it on a certain schedule. Somebody could decide anytime that, “Okay, I’m taking my vote away from Council Member A and giving it to Council Member C,” and so forth. And occasionally that would result in a change of seat.
Jason Bradford: You could have it like every three months we’re going to have a reallocation, you know, hit the button or…
Phil Jensen: It could be scheduled or not scheduled. But right now we have this circus in every district. And the circus is a circus of money. Essentially House members are no sooner seated then they are running again and collecting money.
Jason Bradford: I feel sorry for them, actually.
Phil Jensen: Yeah, some people have said, “Anybody who seeks public office should be automatically disqualified.” That it indicates a pathology.
Jason Bradford: Well, I’ve heard this idea that people say, “We should just randomly pick somebody, people once in awhile. Like, you know, instead of military service, it’s like you’ve been drafted, go represent, you know that would be a better way of doing it.
Phil Jensen: If you’re going to have a big body, “election by lot” has something to be said for it. And there could be some constraints on who can be picked.
Jason Bradford: Yeah. So can we review a little bit the ways to make it more fair. What I heard was ranked. So you say, “My first pick is, is so-and-so. But second would be so-and-so. Third would be so-and-so.” You can rank things, right? That’s one way, right? Another is this sort of levels of affirmation…
Phil Jensen: Approval voting. I mean, I like that because it’s because a three- or four-level system seems to make more sense with human psychology. If somebody has a favorite candidate, that’s fine, but they’re not likely in the current system to have strong feelings. They’re not going to be able to assign one, two, three, four, five, six, down to 20 of all the Democratic candidates in the field right now.
Jason Bradford: Well you can cut it off. Say, just pick your top three or something.
Phil Jensen: Yeah. People who study voting systems can figure out a way to make that work and make it as fair as it can be. There are mathematical theorems that show that in theory, most any voting system will fail to have some property that would be considered desirable. But whether those scenarios of preferences that lead to those mathematical anomalies are actually live possibilities is I think more of a question.
Jason Bradford: Okay. So those are the two I mentioned. There’s one I missed is the proxy voting. I see that as, just by going that way, at least at the national level, you’re not tied to geography. And so then you’re really focused then on who represents your suite of interests better. So that would be a third, kind of unique, way of doing it.
Phil Jensen: Right. We have a big problem now because of the way the two party system forces people into coalitions with undesirable bedfellows. Some Libertarians vote Republican but are probably fairly unhappy with Republican positions on cannabis and reproductive rights and so forth. So a more fine grained party system would be beneficial in that way. The objection to the fine grain parties, mostly, I think has to do with the “vote for one” and the single-member districts, if you eliminate that, then the problems with having multiple lively parties go away.
Jason Bradford: Oh, interesting. I want to now turn a little bit. I think that’s a good survey of the sort of alternative ways of thinking about it. But I wanted to think about it in terms of historical perspective. So this idea that the Constitution was written 200 something years ago. And, and it was written from a very different time. It was preindustrial. Things have changed a lot. We’ve discovered fossil fuels. We’ve figured out how to grow the economy tremendously. And now, of course, you and I are part of an organization looking at post growth, and the decline in available energy, and the knock on effects of that. Do you think any of the stuff you’re talking about here, in terms of making things more fair and maybe more efficient, will it lend itself better to that future or are there still questions you have about that?
Phil Jensen: Getting the fairness to future people right is certainly a difficult problem and made more difficult by the fact that nobody in the political system has an incentive to talk about it in a way that actually reflects reality. Yeah, the age of the Constitution is a good point. We have the oldest constitution in use anywhere, in a sense. Of course, it’s been amended. It was amended to provide direct election of senators. Uh, it was amended to allow an income tax.
Jason Bradford: Women to vote.
Phil Jensen: Women to vote. And of course, as we know, the original Constitution had lots of accommodations to the extreme moral evil of slavery, which did get turned back. But we have a very old constitution. It’s on record that Thomas Jefferson — one of our favorite Founders — was of the opinion that constitutions could be revisited, sort of every generation. And that seems completely fair. And, indeed, people who believe in rights should ask themselves by what right did people in 1787 get to, as it were, tie the hands of voters today. Which is what’s happened because the requirements for amending the Constitution are 2/3rds of the house, 2/3rds of the Senate, and ratification by 3/4ths of the States.
Jason Bradford: That’s pretty huge. It’s so hard. People don’t even talk about constitutional amendments anymore, because it seems impossible.
Phil Jensen: It’s very hard. It borders on the impossible.
Jason Bradford: So yeah, we shouldn’t over-mythologize it or think it’s the “be all end all,” which I think a lot of people do, which is unfortunate. But if we make it a more fair and more efficient process, my thought — is that a way then, when we have to start making kind of quick decisions and decisions in times of crises? What I would hope is you’d have a government that is responsive to conditions very quickly and also has a lot of ideas afloat they can choose from and isn’t constrained by these kinds of institutional, you know, blinders that are a lot of what you see right now. That’s what excites me about this.
Phil Jensen: I would again put in a plug for the “proxy voting, Governing Council, small body model,” because then a viewpoint can be shared by a relatively small number of Americans and yet still be heard on the national stage. And accompanying that system, I would make part of it that funds would be allocated for debate — debate on issues, not slugging it out, a beauty contest between one candidate and another. But to debate issues and that could lead to people changing their minds about issues. But I think a smaller body would have an easier time being nimble in the face of emergencies and rapidly changing conditions.
Jason Bradford: Yeah. Which I, you know, you and I see coming. So I think this is a really important conversation because a lot of what people assume about what policies can you even think about — a lot of people put that through the filter of today’s political landscape, which is so corrupt and so rigid in many ways that, that oftentimes people dismiss ideas simply because they don’t see how the clown show that our current political system is, could even handle this kind of information or ideas. And I think a place more nimble… And the other key I think is that people would trust it more. It just seems more fair. And so when a decision is made, they feel like, “Okay, I can get behind this because it isn’t from this corrupt body that doesn’t listen well.”
Phil Jensen: Yeah, exactly. We should take the chronically very low approval ratings for Congress as really representing chronically low approval ratings for the Constitution because the solution is not just electing different people, right? The reason Congress is dysfunctional is because of the way it’s structured.
Jason Bradford: Yeah, they’re not necessarily all bad individuals, but they are in a system which leads to these bad behaviors and dysfunctionality, and they’re in some ways trapped in it. Right. And so I feel bad about that.
Phil Jensen: I think so, yeah. With regard to fairness, I would want to raise this point and I would want to hear a lot of people talking about it. Which is that the idea of power imbalance is in the discourse now, especially on “the left” or the progressive side — that people are noticing that men have. There’s a power imbalance in a lot of professions, a lot of situations between men and women. And this can lead to inequities, up to and including abuse. And I think this lens should be turned upon the provisions of the Constitution that make urban votes count less. That this is a form of abuse. And the fact that it is so difficult to change the Constitution means that we’re in a situation where, as with any abuser, the people who hold power under this system are saying, “Yes, we have an unfair advantage and we’re just going to hold on to it, thank you very much.”
Jason Bradford: Right. “We’re going to put our people on the Supreme Court.”
Phil Jensen: And they should be, as we say, called out for this. And the people who are being victimized should not take it as a given that this will always be the case. In fact, we should be demanding a constitution that works for everyone.
Jason Bradford: That’s really interesting. I think that’s a really good point to end it on.
Phil Jensen: Okay. Thanks Jason.
Jason Bradford: Thanks Phil.