Reforming the Republic: Democratic Institutions for the New America

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9780130994554: Reforming the Republic: Democratic Institutions for the New America

This book offers a general discussion of a wide range of political reforms by addressing how the American political system would be different if various reforms were adopted. Advocating a wide menu of proposals and weighing their good and bad effects, this book does not attempt exhaustive analysis of a single topic. Rather, it gives general introductions to each issue. It examines some of the most important rules that shape America's electoral landscape, assembling the best evidence available to anticipate what would happen if certain rules were changed. Designed to make readers think and analyze the current electoral status quo in the U.S., this book covers electoral reform and American politics, the public's attitudes, problems with congressional elections, electing the Congress and the President, ballot selection, campaign finance, and the mechanics of running an election. An appropriate and thought-provoking book for any reader who wonders about the current electoral process in the U.S., and is interested in learning about the possible effects of the current reform movement.

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About the Author:

Todd Donovan (Ph.D., University of California, Riverside) is a professor of Political Science at Western Washington University. He teaches state and local politics; American politics, parties, campaigns, and elections; comparative electoral systems; and introductory research methods and statistics. His research interests include direct democracy, election systems and representation, political behavior, subnational politics, and the political economy of local development. He has been published extensively in academic journals; written a number of books on direct democracy, elections, institutions, and reform; and has received numerous grants and awards for his work. He is coauthor (with Ken Hoover) of THE ELEMENTS OF SOCIAL SCIENTIFIC THINKING, also published by Cengage Learning.

Bowler is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

For those of us who vote, our direct experience with elections is fairly simple. We figure out whom to vote for, and then later we hear who won. After any election, however, pundits take things much further. Their election post-mortems are filled with reasons why certain candidates won or lost. Winners are credited with having better ideas, great debate performances, the ability to "sell their message" or connect with the electorate's "mood." In retrospect, winners had the better "handlers" and consultants, produced killer television commercials, had the "electoral tides" in their favor, and so forth. Losses are explained by the opposites of these.

For the most part, neither the average voter nor the average pundit spends much time reflecting on how institutional rules determine electoral outcomes. This is not typically the stuff of heated exchanges on television shows such as "Crossfire" or "O'Reily Factor."

From our perspective, however, rules that shape elections have critical effects on election outcomes—and are far more important than most of the things we usually hear about. Most of these rules deal with things that are seemingly mundane but their consequences are huge.

Consider voting in any general election. Myriad rules shape what our choices look like each November. Thousands of people might want to be president or a member of Congress, but few have a credible chance of ever being elected. But that's the point—the rules predetermine who will have a chance. These rules-our election laws—determine the sort of person who will become a party's candidate. Rules determine if candidates run with party labels or not, and determine the number of candidates or parties who have any credible chance of winning.

The purpose of this book is to illustrate the importance of such rules, and to encourage readers to think about changing America's electoral rules. We examine rules that affect how congressional districts are drawn and rules that limit how many people are elected per district. We examine rules about how votes are cast in elections and rules governing how they are counted. The Electoral College, campaign finance regulations, court rulings about who gets to participate in primary elections, laws defining the number of members of Congress—each of these has tremendous implications for who wins and loses elections. Democracy in the American republic has evolved as these rules are updated and reformed.

For a moment, the 2000 presidential election had the public focused on how institutional rules determine outcomes. If the national popular vote total had been used, Gore would have been president. With the electoral college vote used, Bush won. But the effects of rules run much deeper than this. Had voters in Florida and elsewhere been able to rank-order their preferences as Irish voters do when electing their president, Gore may have won the electoral college as well. Even using our traditional voting methods, different vote-counting machines may have helped one candidate more than the other. The issue goes even deeper. Another set of nomination rules or campaign finance rules might have produced completely different Democratic and Republican candidates. Likewise, another set of rules regulating congressional elections affected which party won control of the U.S. House in 2000.

Our point is not that the 2000 election was any more flawed than previous elections. It probably was not. It does, however, provide a compelling illustration of how rules matter. It is also a compelling demonstration of how big the stakes can be for those who win and lose. The trajectory of American history was changed in September 2001—yet the government that presided over that crisis was as much a product of election rules as it was a clear expression of what voters wanted when they cast their ballots in November of 2000.

Most of the time, citizens probably do not notice how election rules shape who wins or loses. We argue that they do sense that something is seriously wrong with how elections work in this nation. We begin from the premise that something is wrong with the American electoral process. Cynicism about elections is high, and participation is low. We admit that the symptoms are more easily identified than the cure—nonetheless, the problem is real. Americans express little confidence in the utility of their electoral process, and this predated the 2000 election.

This book examines some of the most important rules that shape America's electoral landscape. We direct attention to some major reform proposals that have received attention in the United States over the past decade: proportional representation, term limits for Congress, reforming the electoral college, direct election of the president, campaign finance reforms, Internet voting, and more. We make no explicit recommendations for reform. Rather, we seek to assemble the best evidence available to anticipate what might happen if certain rules were changed.

Many of the major electoral reform proposals that reach our nation's agenda have been adopted in some of our states, or in other established democratic nations. This allows us a comparative perspective from which to draw inferences about how such reforms might change American politics. This gives readers the ability to see that there are alternatives to the status quo U.S. electoral system that are used in the "real world." We hope that this book will help readers think critically about how election results are structured by rules that define how elections are conducted.

Todd Donovan
Shaun Bowler

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