A Radical Middle Dialogue on Legislative Reform

The Governator and James Madison

A Radical Middle Dialogue on Legislative Reform

Reengineering the California Legislature


Version 1.1, 10/6/2004, Ernest N. Prabhakar, Ph.D

I. A Visit From The Past

Madison: Good morning, Governor. Thank you for taking the time to see me.
Governor: The honor is mine, Mr. President. I have long admired your work on the U.S. Constitution, especially the Federalist papers.
Madison: You are very kind, Governor, though that was a long time ago. However, the Constitution is in fact what I wanted to talk to you about. I fear I owe you an apology.
Governor: What, for that business about not allowing naturalized citizens to run for President? Please, don’t worry about it. I’m busy enough now just running the state of California.
Madison: Oh, I quite agree. In fact, I really wanted to talk to you about the California constitution, which in this case borrowed some unfortunate ideas from ours. In particular, I believe you’re having some problems with the state legislature.
Governor: You mean those girly-men politicians who are so indebted to special interests that they refuse to act on behalf of the people?
Madison: Um, in a manner of speaking, yes. But, really, you shouldn’t talk about them like that. In fact, depending on how you look at it, it really isn’t their fault. It is, well, mine.
Governor: Yours? You must be kidding, Mr. President. You are, er, were one of the greatest statesmen of all time. If we had people like you in the legislature, we wouldn’t be having these problems.
Madison: That’s very kind of you to say, Governor, but I’m afraid you’re wrong. Oh, sure, I like to think I’d do a little better than the people you have in there now. But frankly, we had a pretty low opinion of state legislatures in my day, too. Human nature hasn’t really changed all that much in two hundred years, after all. But rather that relying on unnatural levels of nobility, we tried to design a system that would force human nature to act in the best interest of all the people.
Governor: And if I may say so, you did a remarkable job. The United States has become a beacon of hope to all the world, a shining city on a hill, a golden dream by the…
Madison: Yes, yes, I know, and thank you. Certainly we are all very proud of the Constitution, especially considering how little we knew of practical democracy at the time. But there is one fundamental development we failed to foresee, which is arguably at the root of your problems in California. Do you know what that is?

II. The Problem With Parties

Governor: Let me guess. Political parties?
Madison: Precisely. My theory of large-scale republican government was based on the idea of multiple independent factions, whose representatives would only agree about topics of genuine benefit to the entire country. We failed to predict that factions would coalesce into parties, especially two dominant parties.
Governor: But how could you have known? And aren’t two parties inevitable, no matter what?
Madison: The answer to both your questions lies in a result known as Duverger’s Law.
Governor: Divergers Law?
Madison: No, though that might also be a good name. Claude Duverger discovered this principle around the 1950’s. Our voting system — where every citizen casts one vote per office, and the candidates with the most votes wins — is called plurality voting. It means someone can win without majority support if there are more than two parties. This inevitably leads to the dominance of two parties at a time, because of the risk of “spoiling” the vote. True, third parties can have an impact, and occasionally replace one of the major parties, but such events are relatively rare.
Governor: But why is that a problem? Surely it is a good thing to have two opposing parties to keep each other honest.
Madison: Sure, the two-party system has a number of advantages, especially compared to a one-party system! But when there’s only two parties, its easy for them to get complacent, and collude (intentionally or unintentionally) in ways that aren’t always in the best interest of the people.
Governor: Like gerrymandering.
Madison: Exactly. As you are well aware, partisan redistricting reduces competition and decreases voting power. That was the first mistake we made — putting redistricting in the hand of the legislature. Objective, community-based districts — by either a non-partisan judicial panel or an open computer algorithm — are the first obvious change you need to make.
Governor: Absolutely. Its just a question of timing.
Madison: Sure, I understand. These things take time. But while that’s perhaps the most obvious mistake, its not the only, or even most important, mistake you’ll have to fix.
Governor: Then what is?

III. Ranked-Choice Voting

Madison: The fact that we built our entire system explicitly around plurality voting, and thus implicitly around the assumption that there are only two choices. The world is more complicated than that, and California of all places needs a system that reflects, embraces, and channels that diversity.
Governor: You’re absolutely right. California is the most diverse society in human history. Politics as usual has got to go. We can’t have a polarized government with the right-wing nut jobs on one side, and the left-wing weenies on the other, and nobody in the middle except me. But how can a better voting system change that?
Madison: By making it easier for good ideas to bubble up through the system, and harder for bad ideas to get approved. You see, every decision making system is optimized for certain kinds of problems and solutions. Plurality voting implicitly assumes duality — that there’s only two sides to every problem. We need a system that allows more than that.
Governor: So, what would that look like?
Madison: Well, the simplest improvement over plurality is something often called ranked voting. Rather than just picking a single favorite candidate, voters can rank candidates in order of preference.
Governor: Ah, that way they aren’t forced to pick the lesser of two evils. They can always vote for their favorite, but still help their second-favorite defeat their least favorite. It also means third-parties can run without becoming spoilers.
Madison: Correct. Even better, that same technique can be extended to entire legislatures using a concept known as proportional representation. Instead of one seat per district, you can five, ten, or even more. Voters rank as many candidates as they care about, with surplus votes being redistributed further down the ballot.
Governor: Sounds simple to vote, but hard to count. What is the impact of all that?
Madison: Basically, it means that voters get candidates who maximize their viewpoint. So, if in a district with ten seats we had, say:

  • 44% voted Democrat
  • 26% voted Republican
  • 24% voted Libertarian with Republican second
  • 6% voted Green who voted Democrat second

then the delegation would have 5 Democrats, 3 Republicans, and 2 Libertarians.

Governor: Ah! That way the legislature mirrors the actual population, without the distortion caused by gerrymandering. Would you do the whole legislature that way?

IV. Bicameral Representation

Madison: Actually, no. Despite its many virtues, the problem with proportional representation is that it encourages candidates to focus only on their ideological base. Plus, it means that a splinter party can become the swing vote needed to form a majority, giving them too much power instead of too little.
Governor: So, do you have a clever solution to that?
Madison: Actually, I would recommend you just reuse the existing solution of a bicameral legislature. Have the Assembly elected by proportional districts with say, seven seats apiece. But, have Senators elected from single-winner districts, again using ranked voting. That way, the Assembly promotes diversity, whereas the Senate encourages moderation — pretty much the way we originally intended.
Governor: I get it. But won’t having geographical districts at all still allow for gerrymandering?
Madison: Right, that’s why you need to first need a party-neutral redistricting scheme.
Governor: Got it. Hasta la vista, gerry!
Madison: Um, yes. However, I’d also like to recommend two more reforms, if you don’t mind
Governor: I would be honored to hear them, especially since you’ve come all this way.
Madison: First, change the way legislatives offices — speakers, committees, etc. — are chosen.
Governor: Oh, definitely. The current system is all about trading favors behind closed doors.
Madison: Right. Instead of caucuses by the majority party, use ranked voting across the entire house. Committees would similarly be filled proportionally, which is especially useful when there’s more than two parties.
Governor: Excellent! That way there’s a better chance of getting members who are actually committed to doing the job for everyone, not just amassing pork for themselves.
Madison: Exactly. Again, the goal is the same as my original theory of factions. Create incentives for groups to focus on their own interests individually, but come together in ways that act in the best interests of the entire state.
Governor: So, the system you propose will solve that?
Madison: Well, it will help, but I have an even more radical solution if you’re open it.
Governor: Bring it on!

V. Bicameral Procedures

Madison: One reason for complexity and pork in legislation is the fact that everything gets written five times: twice for each House’s committee, twice more for each full House, and one last time in Conference. This gives lots of room for shady dealing.
Governor: Tell me about it. Should we then go back to a single House, like a Parliament?
Madison: That’s one option, but it would disrupt the balance we discussed earlier. Instead, why not treat legislation like a product whose quality we want to maximize. Do you know what the most important factor is in product quality?
Governor: Independent testing?
Madison: Right! Based on past experience, the full house is clearly not independent enough to discipline its own committees. Instead, I propose we give the Assembly the sole power to write legislation, but the Senate the sole power to edit it. That way the senior Senate acts as a check on the passions of the lower house, as we intended.
Governor: Interesting. How would that work?
Madison: During debates on a bill, there are often good amendments which fail to get approved by a majority, as well as bad amendments that get approved due to log-rolling between special interests.
Governor: Tell me about it!
Madison: But now, the Assembly is required to pass along all relevant amendments as well as the bill. The Senate would collect the amendments into some reasonable sets of options — like buying a new car — then pick the best using ranked voting. Which they’d send directly along to you — no conference committee needed!
Governor: Amazing! But won’t that give the Senate too much power?
Madison: Not at all. The Senate can never write a single line of legislation; they can only work with ideas that originated in the Assembly. It actually gives them less work, but more responsibility, which might attract more experienced part-time legislators.
Governor: Wow, that’s pretty cool. The Assembly can focus on being creative in generating ideas, while the Senate focuses on being wise in making decisions.
Madison: Right. In fact, some scientists argue that this is how our brains work — the right-side generates ideas, while the left side evaluates them.

VI. Conclusions

Governor: Well, my left side is going to be quite busy for a while evaluating all these ideas!
Madison: Sorry to dump so much on you at once, but I felt it was the least I could do after saddling you with that problem in the first place.
Governor: Please, no apology necessary. You did the best you could with what you had. I can see how these improvements can break the two-party stranglehold, and encourage better decisions. Why haven’t we done this before?
Madison: Well, frankly, my fellow Founding Fathers and I are part of the problem. We are held in so much esteem that people distrust their ability to improve on our work. That’s why I want you to understand why we did what we did, and where and how we went wrong — so you can do better without losing anything important.
Governor: It is a tall order, but I’m willing to try.
Madison: Good man. Now, do you remember everything I told you?
Governor: Let me see. According to you, California needs:

  1. Objective, non-partisan redistricting
  2. Ranked voting for statewide offices and Senators
  3. Proportional representation for the Assembly
  4. Open elections for legislative offices
  5. Separate roles, where the Assembly writes and Senate edits
Madison: That’s it exactly. Again, this is just some ideas I’ve had over the last couple centuries. Use them as a starting point, but don’t be afraid to think on your own.
Governor: Me, afraid? Ha!
Madison: That’s the spirit, Governor. Just be sure to follow through, or — I’ll be back!
Governor: Hey, that’s my line!

The End

The characters in this story, despite their names, are completely fictitious. Their words and beliefs are mine. Any similarity with actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Ernest N. Prabhakar, Ph.D.
Founder, RadicalCentrism.org
September, 2004

The mission of RadicalCentrism.org is
to help individuals, communities, and systems
becoming sustainably centered — happy, healthy & holy —
by being properly rooted in humility, justice & love.



plurality voting
the most common form of voting in democratic countries; sometimes known as First-Past-the-Post (FPTP). Each voter can only pick a single candidate, meaning that a candidate can win with a plurality rather than a true majority if there are more than two parties. The fact that voting for a third-party can cause your second-choice to lose leads to the “spoiler” effect from third-parties, sometimes called the “lesser of two evils” problem.
ranked-choice voting
a well-studied alternative to plurality, sometimes called rank-order voting or preference voting. Rather than picking a single favorite, voters rank the various candidates in order of preference.The most popular implementation of ranked-choice is called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). However, most theorists recommend an alternate system called Majority Voting (MV) which unlike IRV satisfies the “Condorcet criterion,” which states that the candidate which is preferred by the greatest majority over each rival must be elected. To use a sports analogy, IRV is single-elimination while MV is round-robin.
proportional representation
a system for allocating seats in a legislature or other body according to their level of support in the electorate. The most flexible implementation is known known as Single Transferable Vote (STV), and is somewhat related to IRV. Voters rank-order at least as many candidates as there are seats available — ideally more. Candidates with enough first-choice votes automatically win. Surplus votes for those candidates are fractionally reallocated to those voters second-choice, and the process repeats until all the seats are filled. STV sacrifices a rigid proportionality for the flexibility of voting for individual candidates, rather than just parties.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condorcet_method (majority voting)


One Comment on “A Radical Middle Dialogue on Legislative Reform”

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