Goodman: Want a better country? These changes could do it.

  • Howard Goodman
12:00 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017 Opinion
With a new year upon us, it’s a good time to think about electoral solutions that would help produce leaders who represent less of the extremes of the right or left, and more of the broad middle of our society — where common-sense compromises can be worked out, the kind we’re going to need to move forward as a more unified people.

In past columns this year, I’ve written about the weakened state of our democracy:

About the polarization that has put many Americans into fiercely clashing Red State/Blue State camps, each with their own information streams to shore up their own beliefs and discount the other’s. We see it every day as the political parties look for wins rather than try to solve problems for the common good.

About the outlandish role of corporate and billionaire donors, with representatives in Congress now acting more beholden to the elites who grease their campaigns than to the thousands, sometimes millions, of people who voted for them.

With a new year upon us, it’s a good time to think about solutions.

Here are some ideas I think would help produce leaders who represent less of the extremes of the right or left, and more of the broad middle of our society — where common-sense compromises can be worked out, the kind we’re going to need to move forward as a more unified people.

Fair districts. The dominant political party always tries to reshape legislative districts to perpetuate its hold on power — gerrymandering is as old as American politics — but the Republicans’ clever use of computerized mapping has made many state and congressional seats virtually impregnable for years to come. With the capabilities of Big Data becoming ever more sophisticated, the trend looks to get much worse in 2021.

Florida, surprisingly, is a leader in reform. Voters in 2010 passed amendments to the state constitution forbidding lawmakers from favoring or disfavoring political parties when redrawing the legislative maps every 10 years. It’s taken persistent lawsuits from Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, but it looks like the amendment is starting to have the intended effect: more competitive races.

A handful of states have taken map-drawing out of their legislatures’ hands. In California, for instance, a commission of Republicans, Democrats and independents determines the districts. Other states, from Ohio to Utah, are seeing a wave of reform campaigns.

But the U.S. Supreme Court may determine the issue for the whole country in 2018 when it rules on cases involving Republican-dominated Wisconsin and Democratic-led Maryland. Let’s hope the court is smarter than it was in Citizens United.

Repeal Citizens United. Arguably, nothing has ruined our current politics as much as this 2010 monstrosity that struck down key restrictions on campaign finance. With perverse reasoning, the high court equated corporations with people, campaign cash with political speech – and rejected the obvious reality that massive spending has a distorting effect on elections and then on governing. Witness the recent GOP tax bill, which was written to make sure the pols’ big donors were made very, very happy.

Some states and cities are fighting back. New York, Maine, Seattle and Arizona, for instance, have instituted public funding to offset the infusion of private wealth. These, let’s hope, can begin a wave of reforms that will spread and put more balance into the financing of elections.

But to overturn the weird legal doctrine of “corporate personhood,” we need a constitutional amendment. That’s the goal of a grassroots group worth checking out, Move to Amend. It seeks the passage of a constitutional amendment that would state flatly that corporations are not humans, that money is not protected free speech, and that laws limiting campaign contributions are perfectly OK.

Election reform. The Electoral College has to go. Twice in the last 17 years, this quaint invention of the 1700s has given us presidents who didn’t win the popular vote. Here’s a solution that doesn’t involve a rewrite of the Constitution: pass the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

It’s simple. States under the compact agree to award their electoral votes to whomever wins the popular vote. Ten states and D.C., representing 165 electoral votes, have passed the compact. It will take effect if and when it’s passed by enough states representing a majority of electoral votes, which is 270.

Apart from presidential elections, we need to be electing officials who are acceptable to a broader swath of the public. A nifty way to do this is by adopting ranked choice voting.

Say you have a primary with several candidates in the running. Instead of voting for just one candidate, you rank the names on your ballot: best-liked to least. If no candidate gets a majority when the votes are counted, the lowest-ranking is eliminated in an “instant runoff.” Those voters’ second-ranking choices are distributed among those remaining. The ballots are recounted, and the process continues until one candidate gets a majority.

Candidates do best who get strong first-choice support as well as a bunch of second- and third-place rankings. That means they have to reach out to more than a small, passionate base.

In cities where it’s been tried, such as Minneapolis, San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass., there’s been less mudslinging and polarization, and surprisingly ample opportunity for candidates from underrepresented communities. Best, there’s more chance that the winning candidate is responsive to a large share of the electorate.

National service. Too many communities in America don’t know each other, ensconced in their social-media bubbles. Too many Americans feel like they’re in it for themselves, without much sense of national purpose or responsibility for one another.

We lost a chance at cohering more as a nation, I believe, when the mandatory military draft (for males) was ended in the early 1970s without another sort of national service to take its place.

I think we should recall the spirit of President Kennedy’s Peace Corps by requiring two years of national service, either at age 18 or after college — or maybe just one year, or only a summer, if that’s what Congress decides.

It doesn’t have to be with the military. It could mean volunteering overseas or with the nation’s poor. Or working in national parks, joining work crews to rebuild roads and bridges, erecting houses, or putting doctors, dentists and nurses in rural towns that need them.

You’d have young Texans working with New Yorkers; Miamians with Minnesotans. Blacks with whites; Muslims with Christians. The country would benefit from lots of good works— and we’d have a better understanding of each other.

Those are the fixes on my wish list. What are yours?