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Our Common Purpose: Second Event Looks at Reforming Electoral Institutions

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At any point in time we might look at our political institutions – Congress, the presidency, the courts, elections, etc. – and see them as static, impervious to change in the larger social or cultural environment. In fact, that perception is wrong.

Our political institutions evolve just as the larger culture does. As the nation’s mores changed in the 1960s and ‘70s in the direction of freer expression and more openness, so did Congress, which opened up its lawmaking processes in substantial ways as a result of internal and external pressure. The office of the president changed dramatically in the 1930s and ‘40s in response to exigencies stemming from the Great Depression and World War II. Even the federal courts, the most staid of our governmental institutions, were reshaped to respond to changing times by the Evarts Act in 1891, named after Senate sponsor William Maxwell Evarts of New York.

The second event in the Our Common Purpose series focuses on the electoral institutions, a topic that has received a great deal of attention in recent years. The panelists will look at the democratic reform movement that started earlier this century and which continues apace.

Like our governmental institutions, electoral institutions have undergone major change over time. Party primaries, for example, were an innovation of the Progressive Movement at the turn of the last century. Before that, parties selected nominees through internal closed processes, and a few state parties still conduct business that way. Primaries at the presidential level were not widespread until the 1970s, change was brought about by activists in response to a largely closed Democratic Party process in 1968 that resulted in considerable unrest at the national convention.

The drawing of district lines for state and federal legislative positions was left entirely to the states’ discretion until  Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s resulted in a mandate that districts for almost all legislative positions be of about equal population according to the one-person, one-vote principle. The exception: the US Senate, which was protected from change by its status in the Constitution.

In the conversation led by Kluge Prize winner Danielle Allen on April 15, panelists Katie Fahey, Cara McCormick, and Lee Drutman will discuss recent efforts to reform political gerrymandering (a movement led by Fahey), abandon plurality-winner voting methods in favor of ranked choice voting (instituted in Maine due in large part due to the efforts of McCormick), and move away from single-member districts in favor of multi-member districts (the subject of a recent book by Drutman).

Fahey argues that overly politicized gerrymandering distorts representation in legislative bodies. McCormick makes the case that ranked choice voting – a system by which voters rank their preferences in primaries and general elections when more than two candidates are on the ballot – yields a more accurate representation of the true preferences of the electorate. And Drutman posits that the system of single-member districts with plurality-winner voting methods yields a two-party system that has flattened our politics and outlived its usefulness.

Join us April 15 at 1pm for “How Political Institutions Shape Outcomes, and How We Might Reform Them,” featuring Kluge Prize winner Danielle Allen.


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