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October 2019, Week 5

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 		 [This is an excellent and engaging read that exposes the
structural flaws in the US government system and provides tangible,
achievable proposals to address them, writes reviewer Frazier.]
[https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 RETHINKING U.S. ELECTION LAW  
[https://portside.org/2019-10-30/rethinking-us-election-law] 

 

 Erica Frazier. 
 September 3, 2019
LSE Review of Books
[https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2019/09/03/book-review-rethinking-us-election-law-unskewing-the-system-by-steven-mulroy/]


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 _ This is an excellent and engaging read that exposes the structural
flaws in the US government system and provides tangible, achievable
proposals to address them, writes reviewer Frazier. _ 

 , 

 

Rethinking US Election Law
Unskewing the System
Steven Mulroy
Edward Elgar Publishing
ISBN: 978 1 78811 750 0

The United States has come to a political crossroads. Few Americans
have favourable opinions of Congress
[https://news.gallup.com/poll/1600/congress-public.aspx]. There is not
a single third-party member of Congress, though there is widespread
support for an alternative political group. Rampant gerrymandering
means politicians choose their voters, and the Supreme Court has once
again declined
[https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2019/06/28/the-supreme-courts-partisan-gerrymandering-decision-is-justice-scalias-last-laugh-democratic-restoration-now-depends-on-the-people-alone/]
to intervene. Steven Mulroy’s
[https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2019/03/20/adopting-proportional-representation-would-unskew-us-elections/]
book, _Rethinking US Election Law: Unskewing the System_, is an
excellent response to what feels to many like a total impasse,
exposing a number of structural problems as well as tangible,
realistic proposals to address them.

Mulroy has had an impressive career in election law and voting rights,
writing numerous articles over the years and serving as a voting
rights litigator, elected official, election reform advocate and a
Professor of Law at the University of Memphis. These varied
experiences manifest in the book’s comprehensive considerations of
arguments in favour of and against proposed reforms, as well as in its
clear, authoritative style. Each chapter is concise and meticulously
sourced and footnoted for additional reference. Mulroy also avoids the
pitfall of focusing on American exceptionalism to the point of
ignoring instructive lessons from other countries. The book features a
well-organised index and chapters with straightforward titles, making
it very reader-friendly. With a few pleasant witticisms, popular
culture references and a Southern aphorism or two, this is not the dry
textbook students fear, but a good resource for anyone interested in
American governmental dysfunction and ideas for improvement.

Overall, the book follows a fairly classic structure of identifying
and outlining problems then proposing solutions. The first half of the
book highlights the ways in which the popular will is systematically
thwarted. According to Mulroy, the electoral college, internal Senate
rules and single-member winner-take-all districts have led to
undemocratic outcomes. The evidence bears this out. The US is
currently led by a president whom a majority did not vote for. There
is an average difference of 6 per cent between the share of votes a
party receives and the number of seats it gets in the US House of
Representatives (174). In a system predicated on majority rule, a 41
per cent minority of senators, representing less than 33 per cent of
the population, frequently block national legislation (174). In the
second half of the book, Mulroy outlines his plan to fix the system.
He argues these flaws not only _can_ be remedied, but that there would
be no need for a constitutional amendment to do so.

Chapters Two, Three and Six detail the means to ensure the Electoral
College follows the popular will, reforms Senate rules that lead to
obstructionist hang-ups and establishes nonpartisan commissions to end
gerrymandering. Chapters Seven and Eight describe the potential
benefits of changing the chaotic US electoral system to one based on
ranked choice voting, or RCV. (In the interest of full disclosure, I
should state here that I work at FairVote, an organisation advocating
the implementation of RCV across the US.)

For those who are unfamiliar with RCV, under the system voters are
allowed to rank their preferred candidates. In single-winner races, if
no candidate reaches an outright majority, the candidates with the
lowest vote shares are eliminated and their votes transferred to the
next-ranked person on the ballot. The process continues until one
candidate secures 50 per cent of the vote. A similar process is in
place for the multi-winner form of RCV, with the additions that the
thresholds for victory are lower, and that as well as eliminating
candidates with the lowest vote shares and redistributing their votes,
a winning candidate’s votes in excess of the electoral threshold are
redistributed.

Mulroy advocates both the single and multi-winner forms of RCV to
improve elections in the US. The book claims that with the
implementation of RCV, there would be improved competition among
candidates, better turnout and more civil campaigns. It goes on to say
that while coupling single-winner RCV with nonpartisan redistricting
commissions could help combat some of the democratic deficit in the
US, still more reform is necessary. To Mulroy, single-winner RCV is a
transitional step towards multi-winner RCV and the benefits it
provides.

While Congress is becoming increasingly diverse
[https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/02/08/for-the-fifth-time-in-a-row-the-new-congress-is-the-most-racially-and-ethnically-diverse-ever/],
it still falls short in terms of reflecting the varied political,
ethnic, racial, gender and sexual identities and orientations of the
American people. Mulroy claims that rather than relying on a single
representative to reflect the will of thousands of diverse Americans
in a district, new multi-member districts, with more representatives
elected via RCV, would provide more proportional representation for
all Americans while undermining the practice of gerrymandering. The
author is in good company here. Other prominent scholars of American
politics have also advocated instituting multi-member districts to
solve gerrymandering and its attendant problems. The LSE USAPP blog
[https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2018/03/27/marylands-electoral-maps-show-how-proportional-representation-could-solve-the-problem-of-gerrymandering/]
features one such case study of the state of Maryland.

While Mulroy underscores the potential for single and multi-winner RCV
to resolve problems at the national level, he identifies state and
local governments as the primary testing grounds for such reforms. The
state of Maine’s experience seems to support this conception of
electoral reform bubbling upward. Single-winner RCV was first used in
the state’s largest city and has since spread to the election of
federal representatives. The idea of using single-winner RCV as a
stepping stone to a multi-winner system has yet to come to fruition in
the US, though Minneapolis uses both systems in parallel to select
representatives for its Park and Recreation Board.

Since the book is premised on making changes without the need for
constitutional amendments, there are limits to what it deems
‘conceivable’. Those interested in more radical changes – such
as guaranteeing all Americans a fundamental right to vote, or
abolishing the Senate outright – might find the book somewhat
disappointing in its scope. Further, the book spends almost no time
discussing _who_ is allowed access to the ballot box or _how_. While
acknowledging representation in the US Senate is inherently skewed due
to demographic trends, it limits its recommendations to improving the
body’s internal workings, such as killing the filibuster. Shifting
senatorial elections to a more proportional system via two-winner RCV
is written off as extremely difficult to achieve and offering little
payoff. For a book dedicated to electoral reform, it seems little
would have been lost in describing this sort of change as a possible
though unlikely outcome of the transition from single to multi-winner
RCV. These characteristics do not detract from the book’s overall
value, however. They are likely due to the author’s perspective
developed through long involvement in the fields of voting rights and
electoral reform, and highlight the need for more research and
discussion.

On the whole, _Rethinking US Election Law_ is a timely, well-written
argument in favour of electoral reform in the United States. It
advances achievable solutions that could go a long way towards solving
the country’s current democratic breakdown, and is an excellent read
for anyone interested in ‘unskewing the system’.

ERICA FRAZIER is Research Manager at the nonprofit nonpartisan
electoral reform group FairVote. She received a joint PhD in political
science from Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland and the
Université d’Orléans, France. Her current research interests
include electoral systems, political economy and political discourses
and movements in the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland.

_Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position
of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of
Economics. _

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