• Washington Post

American Democracy Is Cracking. These Ideas Could Help Repair It.

Salwan Georges/The Washington Post
With little experience in politics, Katie Fahey launched a grass-roots campaign against gerrymandering in Michigan following a post she made on Facebook.

On the morning of Nov. 10, 2016, Katie Fahey posted a short message on her Facebook page. It read: “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan, if you’re interested in doing this as well, please let me know.” She ended it with a smiley face emoji.

Fahey was then 27 years old, with little experience in politics. Her message was born of general frustration that the system wasn’t working for most people, including her. She thought that gerrymandering – the manipulation of legislative and congressional districts for political gain – was a major contributor to the problem of lack of representation.

Fahey wasn’t by any stretch a social media influencer, but by lunchtime, she realized she had struck a nerve. Many people “liked” the posting, others responded with comments, still others sent her personal messages asking how to help. To that question, she had no answer. “Oh, crap,” she thought to herself. And then she Googled, “How do you end gerrymandering?”

Today, because of the grass-roots campaign that Fahey launched, Michigan’s district lines are drawn by an independent commission of citizens.

As an example of the power of an individual to change the system, the movement started by Fahey’s Facebook post stands out at a time when so many Americans distrust politicians and political institutions, feel their voices are not heard and are angry at one another.

This series of Washington Post stories has sought to highlight the imperfections of America’s union – including the architecture created by the founders that in a modern, polarized, two-party system often gives more power to a minority of citizens than to the majority, or that leaves particular groups of people underrepresented.

The problems with American democracy can, to many, feel overwhelming and intractable. But there are possible solutions, some of which are described below. And Fahey proved that, given time, energy and a commitment by many ordinary people, the system can be moved.

For generations, the redistricting process, which follows the census every 10 years, has been in the hands of state legislators. Whichever party had the power exercised it to protect itself. Wresting control away from the politicians was Fahey’s goal. In 2000, Arizona voters were the first to approve creation of an independent commission of citizens to oversee redistricting.

To do it in Michigan, Fahey said she and her allies had to write an airtight and lengthy constitutional amendment, then try to qualify it for the ballot under the state’s referendum process. They had to collect more than 300,000 signatures from around the state in 180 days. And they had to organize and finance a political operation that could convince a majority of voters to approve. All from a standing start.

From that first Facebook posting, the movement grew to thousands of volunteers, attracted experienced consultants and well-financed outside groups. Ultimately more than $16 million was spent to promote it. The proposed amendment appeared on the Michigan ballot in 2018 and passed with 61 percent of the vote, winning a majority in 67 of the state’s 83 counties.

After the 2020 census, the commission drew new, more competitive lines. The 2022 election was the first held under these maps and the result was that Democrats took control of the state House and state Senate for the first time in four decades, reflecting a tilt toward Democrats in recent statewide races.

“I’m ever more convinced that everyday people – regular folks who aren’t in the political system – we have to be the ones driving this change, because the political beast just wants to keep feeding itself,” said Fahey, who worked as program manager for the Michigan Recycling Coalition in 2016 and is now executive director of a government-reform organization, The People.

Some of the most commonly cited ideas for structural change to U.S. democracy require amending the Constitution – eliminating the electoral college, for example. But in today’s divided America, changing the Constitution seems a nonstarter. Among major democracies, the U.S. Constitution is considered to be one of the hardest to amend, requiring a two-thirds majority vote of the House and Senate, or two-thirds of the states calling for one, and then ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures.

Other ideas could be put in place through legislative action, but they also face steep hurdles given divided public opinion and a national government often gridlocked by narrow majorities and deeply conflicting agendas. Some are being given test drives in individual states as their backers seek a bigger foothold nationally. Some, like Michigan’s independent redistricting commission, could be replicated in other states if citizens there take action.

To many analysts, the work of dealing with structural impediments, while necessary, should not ignore the acute threats posed to U.S. democracy by former president Donald Trump, who in his campaign to return to the White House has proposed suspending the Constitution, exercising dictatorial powers and using government to punish opponents if he becomes president again. These analysts say work on both fronts is needed, carried out on separate tracks with differing timelines.

What follows are several of the proposals for systemic change that experts say are most worthy of discussion.

Expand the House

Dysfunction in the House has been a major political theme of 2023, with the ouster of former House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and constant infighting among Republicans. But the problems go beyond the power of a faction of the GOP to distort the workings of the chamber. What is known as the people’s House is seen by the public as more and more distant from the people.

For the first 125 years after the Constitution was ratified, the size of the House grew steadily, from an initial membership of 59 to 435 in 1913. Then it stopped growing, eventually restricted by a 1929 law to the current 435 members, even though the country’s population continued to grow. House members in the first Congress each represented roughly 35,000 people. Today the average member of the House represents about 768,000 people.

In 2020, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a lengthy report called “Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century.” The first of its recommendations called for substantially enlarging the House, noting that among the world’s democracies, the United States is an outlier in the size of its lower chamber.

The American Academy report proposed adding 150 members to the House, roughly the number of seats that have shifted from state to state due to reapportionment since 1931. That would reduce the number of people per district to about 566,000.

That’s just one of several ideas that would expand the House. However it’s accomplished, proponents say expansion would create a body that’s more responsive and more representative of the public it serves.

There are practical and political considerations involved in expanding the House. The law that limits the House to 435 members would have to be repealed. There is also the issue of space: The current House chamber likely could not accommodate a significantly larger body without substantial renovation, not to mention committee hearing rooms and office suites. But there is nothing sacrosanct about a 435-member House.

Multi-member districts and proportional representation

Gerrymandering has distorted the balance of power in state legislatures and representation in Congress, but more ails the system than weirdly shaped districts. The current winner-take-all system magnifies the advantages of the majority party and punishes the minority party.

That’s the case whether in red states or blue states. In its Fall 2023 issue, the journal Democracy examined this in depth. “Arkansas’s four House seats are red, despite Democrats receiving a third of the statewide vote,” the authors, Grant Tudor and Beau Tremitiere, both from the organization Protect Democracy, noted. “Seven of Maryland’s eight seats are blue, despite a third of the electorate voting red.”

A year ago, 200 political scientists, noting that barely 10 percent of House districts are truly competitive, proposed a dramatic change to the system: multimember districts and proportional representation. Each district would include several members to the House, rather than just one, and those elected would be based on the proportion of the vote received by candidates from the parties competing.

Undoing a 1967 law that requires all House members be elected from single-member districts and adding proportional representation, the political scientists said, “would mean almost every voter could cast a meaningful vote, regardless of where they live.”

Lee Drutman of the think tank New America sees proportional representation as a critical tool at a time when politics has become so charged. “We’ve got to do something to break what I call a two-party doom loop, which is the escalating, binary, us-against-them dynamic that is making the shared project of electoral democracy incredibly uncertain,” he said.

Ranked-choice voting and open primaries

Ranked-choice voting is growing in popularity but mostly at the local level. The concept of ranked-choice voting is simple. Instead of voting for a single candidate on a ballot, citizens rank the candidates in order of their preference.

If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the lowest percentage is dropped and that person’s votes are allocated to the remaining candidates based on his or her voters’ preferences. That process continues until someone does get a majority of the vote.

Ranked choice voting is now used in more than 50 cities and counties, according to the Council of State Governments. Two states – Maine and Alaska – have introduced this change for congressional elections. Voters in Nevada approved ranked-choice voting, but voters must approve it again in 2024 before it can be implemented.

Advocates of the system say it has several merits. First, it assures that the winner of an election has majority support. Advocates say a second advantage is that ranked-choice voting can encourage candidates to try to appeal to a wider range of voters than just their core base and thereby increase the possibility for more civility in campaigning.

Still, even as the system spreads, there are obstacles. An assessment of public sentiment posted on the New America website said that more people preferred the single-vote method of voting and described it as easier and fairer than ranked-choice systems, although that may reflect the fact that people are more familiar with the current system. Even when offered more information about the differences, support for ranked-choice voting did not increase.

Related to these changes is another designed to take power away from the extremes in each party and encourage the development of a more robust middle of the electorate: an end to partisan primaries. All candidates for an office are listed on the ballot, regardless of party. California, Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington use some version of this system.

Nick Troiano leads an organization called Unite America and is the author of a forthcoming book, “The Primary Solution: Rescuing Our Democracy from the Fringes.”

“In the last 20 years,” he said, “the primaries have become weaponized by extreme factions within both political parties to move their political agendas, which has forced Democrats and Republicans to their respective corners.”

Changing the Senate

The Supreme Court, in its 1964 decision in Reynolds v. Sims, ruled that legislative bodies in the states have to follow the principle of one person, one vote, with representation based on population. But the Constitution prevents anything similar happening in the U.S. Senate, with every state getting the same number of members – two – regardless of population.

Today, a body that was never intended to be truly representative of the people has become unrepresentative in ways the founders could not have envisioned, with biases that skew power toward White voters and Republicans.

Other democracies have moved to diminish the power of upper chambers that were not based on true popular representation. Britain’s House of Lords once had the power to block almost any piece of legislation passed by the House of Commons. That power was trimmed substantially a century ago.

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, both of Harvard University, note in their the recent book, “Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point,” that New Zealand, Sweden and Denmark took steps to curb or abolish their upper chambers.

Before he died, John Dingell, who had served as a representative from Michigan for 60 years, wrote an article for the Atlantic proposing the United States do the same. “Abolish the Senate,” he wrote in 2018. “At a minimum, combine the two chambers into one, and the problem will be solved.” He acknowledged that it would take a massive grassroots movement over many years to accomplish this.

The filibuster has become a target of those who want to change the Senate. Once used sparingly and often to block civil rights legislation, the tool has been employed far more frequently in recent years to stymie all kinds of bills and nominations. One proposal calls for a return to the practice of senators having to stand and hold the floor for the duration of their filibuster, rather than merely signal their intent to block legislation, a change that would limit its use.

Eliminating the electoral college

Twice in the past quarter century, the winner of the presidential election lost the popular vote. The first was in 2000, when Vice President Al Gore got more votes nationally than George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas. Bush was declared the winner by a divided Supreme Court after a 37-day recount in Florida. In 2016, Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by about 3 million votes but became president by assembling an electoral college majority.

The same thing could happen in 2024 in an election that pits Trump against President Biden. Even if Trump were to lose the popular vote in 2024, he could again win enough of the truly competitive states to gain a majority in the electoral college.

Eliminating the electoral college requires a constitutional amendment, but it is not a new or outlandish idea. Levitsky and Ziblatt say that, over the history of the country there have been “more than 700 attempts to abolish or reform the electoral college.”

In 1969, the House passed, by a margin of 338-70, a constitutional amendment to abolish the electoral college. The measure, however, died in the Senate, killed off by southern segregationists.

Abolishing the electoral college has long enjoyed popular support. A Gallup survey in 2020 found 61 percent of Americans (89 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 23 percent of Republicans) favored the idea.

Short of a constitutional amendment, there are changes that could make the system less prone to a mismatch with the popular will. Expanding the size of the House membership would be a small step. States are given electoral college votes equal to their House plus Senate delegations and the additional House members would be allocated on the basis of population, making the system more representative than it is today.

Another workaround is the National Popular Vote movement. This seeks to have states commit to awarding all of their electoral votes to the person who wins the national popular vote. According to the group’s website, 17 jurisdictions accounting for 205 electoral votes have signed on to this compact. The organizers say the agreement would take effect when additional states that have a combined 65 electoral votes, thereby hitting the 270 needed to win, approve the idea.

The Supreme Court

Gallup’s surveys have plotted the descent of public support for the Supreme Court. In 2000, 62 percent of Americans said they approved of the way the court was handling its job. Today, 41 percent approve, hovering at historic lows.

Four current members of the Supreme Court were confirmed by senators who represented less than a majority of the U.S. population. Of those, three were nominated by a president – Trump -who lost the popular vote. In recent years, the court has issued rulings sharply at odds with public opinion, with the most controversial being Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which ended the constitutional right to abortion.

Early in his term, Biden put together a commission to study possible changes to the court. In their final report, issued two years ago, the members were strongly in favor of limiting the term of justices to 18 years.

Advocates of this idea call for a new justice to be appointed every two years and serving for 18. That would create regular turnover on the court and assure that “every president would have an equal imprint on the Court during a four-year term,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Voting rights

The issue of voting rights has been at the heart of America’s democracy from the beginning. Who votes, who doesn’t and how easy it is to vote are questions that have been examined, debated, revised and renewed over nearly 250 years. That debate is as charged today as ever.

Trump’s false claims about a stolen election in 2020 have turned what should be a nonpartisan discussion about whether it’s possible to agree on uniform voting methods and procedures into one of the most heated discussions of the day.

After 2020, Republicans in many states enacted laws tightening the rules that govern voting in the name of “election integrity.” In many states run by Democrats, meanwhile, lawmakers have loosened voting restrictions. A push by Democrats to pass federal voting legislation died in the Senate.

Protecting elections from the kind of interference that Trump orchestrated after the 2020 vote and protecting election workers from threats they now regularly receive from election deniers is a priority of voting rights advocates. Lawyers Ben Ginsberg, a Republican, and Robert Bauer, a Democrat, have worked together with local officials to assure as much as possible resistance to attempted meddling with the process in 2024.

Ginsberg said he sees reasons to be hopeful, noting that there are “local community leaders across the political spectrum willing and eager not to have their communities go up in flames.”

Americans vote in lower percentages than citizens in many peer democracies. Automatic voter registration is one idea to encourage more participation. Citizens would become registered automatically at the time they receive a driver’s license, for example. A 2021 study by three California-based researchers found that automatic voter registration boosts both registration and turnout rates in states where it is enacted, and that the increase grows over time. Mandatory voting is another proposal, though more controversial. Voter identification requirements are controversial politically, though they enjoy public support.

Making election day a holiday or moving elections to a Sunday, as is the case in many countries, might make it easier for people to cast their ballots.

Bridging divisions and civic education

Farmville, Va., holds a unique position in the history of America, one relevant to today’s political environment.

In Appomattox, about 30 miles from Farmville, Southern forces surrendered to Northern forces, ending the Civil War that had divided the country over slavery. In 1951, Black students in Farmville’s segregated school system helped set in motion events that culminated in the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision that ruled school segregation unconstitutional.

Longwood University, a public institution, is located in Farmville. Its leaders have instituted a curriculum called Civitae that encourages active citizenship and perhaps over time a reduction in the country’s tensions and divisions.

“We are believers in what you could call the habits of democracy,” university president Taylor Reveley said. “And that is, it’s not purely the substance that you learn that’s very important. But it’s also the habits of engagement.”

Reveley sees a connection between “the straits we’re in” as a country and an abandonment years ago by higher education of efforts to help students prepare for citizenship.

Longwood’s curriculum is just one many efforts to change the culture of politics and help repair democracy at a time of great division. Another is called the “bridging movement,” a loosely connected web of hundreds of organizations whose goal is to take some of the toxicity out of politics.

What these groups have in common is a desire to bring together people with differing political views and encourage them to listen and talk frankly with one another.

“There actually is hope,” said Tom Cosgrove, who creates television programming built around the concept of bringing people together for conversations across ideological and other lines. “When you can be in a moment when you can listen with curiosity, you can recognize the other person’s humanity.”

One prominent example was launched last summer by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) when he assumed the chair of the National Governors Association. He calls his initiative “Disagree Better.”

Scaling up these efforts to create a critical mass that is truly representative of the country might be the biggest challenge.

“If we create our own new homogeneous tribe that is on this work of bridging divides, then not only are we not going to accomplish the mission, but we’re actually going to make the problem worse,” said Pearce Godwin, who helps oversee the work of several hundred groups associated with the bridging movement.

Some might question putting energy into these kinds of initiatives at a time when Trump talks of a second term based on retribution and using the levers of government to go after his enemies.

Eric Liu, who was a co-chair of the study produced by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and who leads a group called Citizen University, sees things differently. There is a need to “rebuild trust and a capacity for association,” Liu said, while at the same time “attending to the worst dangers of what could happen in national politics.”

The path forward

Many Americans see the political system today as toxic and broken, perhaps beyond repair.

The Republican Party is populated by elected officials and citizens alike who are election deniers. They have bought into the lies about the 2020 election and the anti-constitutional rhetoric espoused by Trump.

Those on the left see the threat of another Trump presidency as dangerous to democracy. They also see a system that often frustrates majority opinion on controversial issues like guns or abortion. Trump’s followers see something quite different – politics and culture controlled by an elite faction that disrespects them and their values.

In that kind of climate, nothing will come easy. As history has shown, these are battles that can take decades, with gains and losses along the way.

But the first step with any change is a more robust dialogue about what’s possible.

“We think it’s important to begin to have that conversation, to get discussion of institutional reform back in the public debate,” said Harvard’s Levitsky. “Obviously none of this stuff is going to happen before 2024. Probably not going to happen before 2028. But nothing happens unless it becomes imaginable, unless people start discussing it and debating it.”

And that conversation can begin with ordinary citizens as well as it can with esteemed scholars.

Katie Fahey’s 2016 posting wasn’t the first time she had used Facebook to try to get a movement going to end gerrymandering. In June 2015, she had put up something similar: “Sooo who wants to help me fight bs gerrymandering in MI?” she wrote then.

That time, she got almost no response.

Many people might have stopped after the first attempt. The example of what Fahey did in Michigan offers a lesson that perseverance can produce victories. Or, put another way, would change have come if after that initial, failed effort, she had given up?