Unrig the System: Reforms To Change America
Many Americans are currently wondering, “Why don’t our elections result in governments that implement thoughtful, public interest policies that are supported by the majority of Americans?”
The reason is process. Most of us worry about policies -- How much are we taxed? How well are the roads maintained? Or worse, we are being distracted by issues that divide us, rather than paying attention to the rules by which we elect leaders and how we are governed. That has led to an unhealthy democracy. Process matters.
The American Revolution was fought over process. Taxation without representation wasn’t about taxes but about the lack of representation in deciding which taxes should be assessed and how the money should be spent. The U.S. Constitution wasn’t a list of policy initiatives; it was a document to fix the faulty processes adopted in the Articles of Confederation.
If we want a healthy representative democracy which acts in our best interests, then we must change our system of elections to make them more democratic. These reforms should be specific to local concerns that are not being met.
In Oregon, the reforms we are calling for build upon work done by other independent movements and are intended to allow us to build a broad coalition, one that includes not just moderates or Independents, but also progressives, constitutionalists, Republicans and Democrats who are frustrated by our political process.
Our Theory of Change: America is undergoing a political revolution.
In 1961, 97 percent of Oregonians were either Democrats or Republicans, and only 20 percent of Americans thought of themselves as “independents”. Today, more than 40 percent of Oregonians are Independent, non-affiliated or members of minor parties, while 46 percent of Americans consider themselves politically independent.
There is a broad sense among voters that ordinary citizens do not have much influence on public policy compared with powerful special interests.
This is confirmed by studies at both Princeton and Northwestern University, which found in 2014 that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial influence on U.S. government policy”, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no influence.
Yet voter frustration with the political system and the independent revolution it is fueling have not produced many independent candidates. Those that do run often have a hard time gaining traction in elections, regardless of their qualifications.
Part of the reason for this is that the two major parties control our election laws.
Under our current duopoly, the Democratic and Republican Parties – the legacy parties -- have used their control over government to create legal barriers for new party candidates. Legacy party candidates, operatives, and the special interests within their parties want it that way. Why would they desire any change to a system that gives them complete control?
If we want better government, we need better choices and choices that are not beholden to the legacy parties. That means removing barriers to protect the status quo that has been built up over decades. We can accomplish that not only by electing candidates to legislatures (though that should remain a priority), but also through legal channels, such as lawsuits, the legislative process, and in states like Oregon that have Initiative and Referendum laws and allow ballot measures, directly at the ballot.
Reforms should be determined by local concerns and while recognizing the rights of the Democratic and Republican legacy parties, nevertheless work to reduce or eliminate barriers to competition those parties have created and make reforms that allow voters to make informed choices.
Our party supports the following such reforms in Oregon that will make our political process more responsive to ordinary citizens. We encourage national organizations to consider supporting similar reforms.
Campaign finance reform: These reforms generally include limits on campaign contributions and independent expenditures on electioneering as well as increased transparency and disclosure of who is providing the funds for political ads (including in the ads).
Non-partisan redistricting: Gerrymandering is one of the main sources of political dysfunction in Oregon and America. When partisan legislators and political operatives are allowed to draw legislative lines, they invariably draw them in a way that increases partisan benefit and weakens competition.
Small donor elections: Legacy candidates are tied to the Democratic and Republican money machines as well as the special-interest lobby. Just a handful of wealthy individuals and organizations accounted for 97 percent of the $130 million that was raised and spent on campaigns in Oregon in 2016. This spending far exceeds the ability of community-based candidates to compete, unless they can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money or unless they are willing to cater to the same special interests.
Multi-member legislative districts: Oregon’s current system of legislative apportionment, which allows only one member per small legislative district, could be improved by returning to multi-member districting. Larger legislative districts are more difficult to gerrymander, and many multi-member systems enable stronger competition by third parties and unaffiliated candidates.
No public money pumped directly into political parties: Currently, Oregon state government grants more than $5 million dollars per biennium directly to the partisan (and secret) activities of the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the Oregon Legislature. We propose to eliminate this funding.
Political change is not being stymied by lack of ideas or voters’ preference for the current system. It’s being stymied by our election processes which – even if logical when enacted decades ago – now often act as barriers to change that are well understood and defended by those holding power.
By unrigging our political system, we can ensure that all people, of every political persuasion, will be treated more fairly by our political system. That will produce a more accepting society which is truly reflective of the will of all people rather than an unpopular government that imposes the desires and agenda of the special interests.
These few and meaningful reforms will go a long way toward making our democracy healthier, more meaningful, more responsive and more respected by citizens. The Independent Party and its members will continue to fight for the process reforms that are necessary to cure our unhealthy democracy. We encourage others to do the same around the country and could use your help in Oregon.
About the Author
Sal Peralta is Secretary of the Independent Party of Oregon. The Independent Party of Oregon (IPO) is Oregon’s third largest political party with more than 100,000 members.