Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Some ideas for the Constitution of New Columbia

The District of Columbia is stepping up its attempt to become a state, again.
Bowser is calling for a constitutional convention in June, and statehood on the ballot in November, petitioning the next U.S. president and Congress to declare D.C. the 51st state, even though current congressional Republicans have indicated their disinterest in the issue. Under the draft constitution announced last week, Bowser would become governor of the new state, and the city’s 13 council members would become representatives in a new state House of Delegates. 

As noted one step of that effort is writing a new state constitution, but DC is apparently just rolling the old government into a new one.

Instead, leaders should view the Constitution of the State of New Columbia as an opportunity to solve some of the problems that have been identified with the way we elect the current District Council. The current system was not one that the residents of DC chose for themselves, it was foisted upon us by Congress. Let's not behave like a colony that, having thrown off it's colonizer goes on to behave exactly like them and adopt all of their practices. Let's make our own government. So here are a few proposals to create a better legislature.

First of all, at 13 members, the legislature might be too small. Nebraska has the smallest legislature of any state with 49 members. A larger legislature would allow each member to remain closer to the people they represent and to be more focused on a smaller set of issues. To some extent, the workload of a legislature is per capita and goes down with lower population, but some work doesn't really scale down, so a larger legislature would likely be more effective.

Second, New Columbia could benefit from an upper house, or a modification of the two ways members are elected. The current method for electing legislators, first-past-the-post for single-member districts determined by geography and first-past-the-post for at-large members has resulted in a 13 member Council in which 100% of the members are in effect, if not legally, from the same party. But only 76% of District voters are members of that party. While it is certainly nice for the majority party to have complete control (and as a Democrat myself I enjoy single-party rule), there are voices that are left out of the government. Republicans, Greens, Libertarians and others deserve a proportional, but real, voice in DC government. In the current system they likely feel marginalized or ignored since the real election occurs in the primary, which they are not allowed to vote in.

When the United States constitution was written, the concept behind two houses was that they would represent different groups. The lower house would represent the people, and the upper house the states. That was abandoned with the seventeenth amendment, but the idea of two houses representing different constituencies is not without merit. Instead of the design of the US Constitution as originally written, I propose two houses that represent people grouped in different ways.

Two people might share common political interests because they live near one another, or they may share common interests based on their political philosophy. Two houses would allow these people to vote in both of these ways. By creating a lower house in which members are elected first-past-the-post by geography, and an upper house elected at-large under a proportional representation system we would give a voice to those marginalize voices. An upper house based on a proportional representation system would allow for a more diverse set of voices to be represented in the state's government. Such a system would be fairer, stimulate greater voter participation and be less captive to the effects of gerrymandering. People living in countries utilizing proportional representation express greater satisfaction with democracy, and we should want a fairer, more satisfying democracy, even if it means sharing power with people we disagree with. 

Third, New Columbia should devise a better way to fill vacancies than special elections. Special elections are costly. Furthermore, because they have the same cost to voters as general elections (in time and travel), but with less reward (since they can only vote for one office, not several as is true in a general election) they have low voter turnout, undermining the voice of those to be represented. In addition, vacancies in at-large members are temporarily filled by the central committee of the political party of the member who previously filled the office. Giving such weight to party insiders of just one party is inherently less democratic and representative than elections carried out by the general public regardles! s of party.

A better option would be to have clear lines of succession and alternates. A take-it-or-leave succession, wherein vacated offices are filled by individuals elected by the same electorate, would solve all of these problems. When an office is vacated, that office is offered to the next person in line who may either accept or decline it (within a reasonable amount of time before they decline by default). Should they accept, their office is filled in the same way. Should they decline, the vacancy is offered to the next person on the list. At the end of the list are alternates who must either accept or resign. Alternates would be elected in general elections based either on geography identical to the legislative districts or at-large. Alternates would be unpaid, without staffs, offices or even titles. They're sole responsibility would be to fill vacancies and they would have no power. But as elected office-holders, elected in a general election by the people they would represent, they would carry all the legitimacy of the person they would replace.

If the District is going to ask for greater representation on the grounds that disenfranchisement is inherently wrong and counter to the ideals of American democracy, that case becomes stronger if we aspire to create the fairest, most democratic system in the country. Comments on the draft constitution are currently being accepted at this site where you can also download the draft.

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