A Laboratory of Democracy

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"We have to rethink some basic ways how our political institutions work, because they are increasingly incapable of delivering effective solutions."

This statement by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times succinctly captures the frustration that so many Americans feel about the current political status quo. This is so true in Pennsylvania that many people are calling for a Constitutional Convention (CON CON). I agree the time is now, but not if we’re merely going to tinker around the edges, such as whether or not prothonotaries should be elected.

No! This modern CON CON must go to the heart of the matter and recognize that the political centrists and independents are the ones who feel most alienated from the current political system. The delegates to the CON CON must be prepared to be bold, creative, and innovative. They must be willing to experiment like our Founding Fathers at the U.S. Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. Remember! These delegates, whose mission was to amend the Articles of Confederation, completely scrapped the Articles and wrote a new Constitution.

These proposals are submitted in the same spirit of innovation and experimentation that Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw in his Democracy in America for the states to be "laboratories of democracy."

The best way to break the Gordian knot of two party and interest group dominated politics is to change the election system in order to empower new thoughts and the forces of change. We should change our election system from the present "single member district plurality" system, which amounts to incumbent protection and the enshrinement of the two party system.

We should switch to a "Proportional Representation (PR)" system, where election districts are eliminated or minimized. The parties form a slate of candidates and they run statewide for Congress. For instance, if Pennsylvania has twenty Congressional seats and the Republicans get 40 percent of the vote, they would get eight seats in Congress. The number is proportional to the percentage of their vote. If the Tea Party would get 10 percent of the vote, they get 10 percent of the seats or two Congressmen. The Democrats with 45 percent of the vote get nine seats and the Green Party gets one seat with 5 percent of the vote.

Under the present system the deck is stacked against new emerging parties. Under the present system, if they get only 10 percent and 5 percent of the vote, they are shut out! They get nothing! In a PR system they would still get seats in Congress and have a base upon which to build. Let the Republican and Democratic parties compete in the playing field of political ideas, but let us level the field and make it fair. If you fear that this would lead to a splintering of the political system, my response is let the Republicans and Democrats compete. This is what our capitalist system is all about – competition. Let us have more competition in the political system. If the Republicans and Democrats can’t compete, then we definitely need new and different parties. They are enjoying the luxury of minimal competition. As a compromise, I will accept a standard of 5 percent or 10 percent of the vote in order for a party to be eligible for seats.

I would also propose the same system for the state legislature. I would establish eight election zones in the state with equitable population. The zones would be the northwest, southwest, metro Pittsburgh, north central, south central, northeast, southeast, and Philadelphia. The same PR system would apply to the state representatives and state senators running in each zone. The ultimate effect of this system would be to force legislators to be more concerned with the big picture issues of state and nation and less concerned with provincial and peripheral issues. Of course, this is precisely what Edmund Burke envisioned as the role of the representatives in his "Speech to the Electorate of Bristol."

There is no reason why both chambers have to use the PR system, just as there is no reason why both chambers have to use the geographic division approach. I think it would be a reasonable compromise to have one chamber use PR and the other chamber use the geographic entities. This would accomplish the goal of James Madison, "the Father of the Constitution," in having one chamber in tune with local interests and the other chamber with the big picture issues.

Note: This is the first in a series of commentaries for consideration at a Pennsylvania CON

(Charles L. Kennedy is a senior instructor of political science at Penn State York.)