American democracy needs reform

By DeAnne Julius and John Gault

Financial Times

Published: 1 November 2006

On November 7, Americans go to the polls to elect all 435 members of their House of Representatives and one-third of their senators. If Americans believe that these mid-term elections represent a model of democracy for the rest of the world, they should think again.

Despite an unpopular war and some indiscreet e-mails from a Republican congressman, the Democrats’ hopes of winning a majority in either House face a very undemocratic obstacle: the overwhelming power of incumbency in the US. During the past 50 years, more than 95 per cent of congressmen who stood for re-election won. In 2004 only five incumbent congressmen were defeated; in 2002 the total was four.

There are two main reasons challengers find the odds stacked against them. The first is the need to raise enormous amounts of campaign funding and the second is the politically motivated redrawing of voting district boundaries. Average spending per candidate in the 2004 election exceeded $1m for House seats and $7m for the Senate. Popular candidates can raise and spend much more: Hillary Clinton, senator, has already used $25m (€19.6m) in this year’s campaign.

An unfortunate financial dynamic is at work. Because incumbents win elections, business and political donors who seek influence give more to them and, with bigger war chests, they get re-elected. In the House, incumbents on average receive five times more in contributions than challengers. In the Senate, the multiple is closer to nine times.

Much of this money goes on advertising. The Campaign Media Analysis Group has estimated that campaign spending on advertising this year is up 150 per cent compared with the last mid-terms elections, and that television advertising already exceeded $311m by mid-August. No wonder the networks give so little airtime to those arguing for spending limits or election reform.

The other big hurdle is the incumbents’ control over redistricting. In most state legislatures the majority party is able to redraw congressional district boundaries, thereby providing safe seats for its members in Congress and forcing minority incumbents to fight each other for the rest. “We know democracy is not promoted if we end up with partisan politicians selecting their constituents rather than the other way around,” said one congressman thus deprived of his seat.

American voters understand the redistricting game and many choose not to vote at all, since the outcome is so often predetermined. According to data from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, voter turnout for mid-term congressional elections is consistently below 40 per cent. Nearly one-third of the electorate does not even register to vote, a worse record than Iraq.

What can be done? If America wants to regain legitimacy in advocating democratic reform around the world, it needs to put its own house in order. Three simple reforms would help.

First, set term limits for senators and congressmen. This would ensure that contested elections without incumbents happen more often. It might also encourage “citizen-politicians” from all walks of life to replace the current class of widely disparaged professional politicians. The president is limited to two terms (eight years). Senators should also be limited to two terms (12 years) and congressmen to four terms (eight years).

Second, apply nationwide the redistricting procedure used in Iowa. There, a Legislative Service Bureau, directed by a bipartisan appointee, uses non-political guidelines to recommend boundary changes based on the new national census data once a decade. If its recommendations are turned down by the Legislature, the matter goes to the state Supreme Court. This process has worked well for 25 years and is generally praised for producing competitive districts where election debates are substantive and participatory.

John Tanner, a Democrat representative from Tennessee, has proposed a “Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act”, which would mandate independent commissions such as Iowa’s in each state. Mr Tanner’s bill has attracted 47 co-sponsors, but only two are Republicans and the bill is unlikely to go anywhere while the Republicans are the majority party in the House.

Third, broadcasters should be required to provide free airtime during the final weeks of a general election campaign, but only to those candidates who accept public funding with its accompanying limits on spending. This would greatly relieve the pressure to raise money and it would encourage more candidates to sign up for public campaign funding. In Britain, where the BBC has long provided equal and free airtime for party political broadcasts during the campaign period, viewer figures have been high.

We believe that American democracy needs reform if it is to serve as an example to others. Term limits, non-political redistricting and free airtime in exchange for limits on campaign spending would break the unholy trinity of money, media and politics that has corroded the American model and tarnished its reputation abroad.

DeAnne Julius is chairman of Chatham House, the London-based think-tank. John Gault is on the associate faculty of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy