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MI Democrats seeking single-house, proportional legislature?

11. October 2005 • Murph
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Blogland rumor has it the Michigan Democratic Party is seeking a 2006 ballot initiative for overhauling the state legislature. The reform would involve,

  • Eliminating the State Senate, for a one-house legislature
  • Adding a proportional representation segment to the legislature – after electing most Representatives by district, “correct” the legislative balance to the statewide vote breakdown by adding reps
  • Create an independant commission to handle redistricting

I can’t find any “official” sources on any of this – so far, it seems to be the bloggers at Michigan Politics and Michigan Liberal link-circling each other. Let’s see if any of our local politicos step up with better explanations…



  1. I’ll be interested in hearing Larry’s take, but I think these are good ideas. I don’t see what useful purpose two legislative houses serves; I think one house is fine. Creating an independent commission for redistricting will take partisan politics out of this process (I hope!).

    I’m not sure about the second point. Wouldn’t the one-house legislature be proportional anyway?
       —tom    Oct. 11 '05 - 10:15AM    #
  2. Hm. I’ll believe it when I see it. It will be interesting to see how they might define PR (i.e. is it PR only from a sufficient level of voters to qualify as a major party (of which there are only two, by law, in the state of Michigan)?)
       —Marc R.    Oct. 11 '05 - 10:16AM    #
  3. Tom,
    Proportional representation typically means seats assigned according to the number of votes received overall and NOT the winner-take-all system currently employed by the US. In other words, if the Greens, say, received 10% of all votes cast for the legislature, they would then receive 10% of the seats. Genuine representative democracy and all that. What a marvelous concept…
       —Marc R.    Oct. 11 '05 - 10:18AM    #
  4. I’m ambivalent about this. As redundant as the Senate (or House) may seem in an era of one person, one vote, the reality is that the Senate, even in the hands of the west coast posse, has often put the brakes on some of the more damaging legislative ideas that have come out of the House. I’m sure there are reasons for this but I fear the loss of this check on the House could lead to a lot of really bad legislation.
       —John Q    Oct. 11 '05 - 10:44AM    #
  5. This initiative is news to me.

    I have mixed feelings about a one-house legislature, and I’m decidedly negative on proportional representation. As to redistricting reform, my preference would be to create stringent, enforceable rules (mathematical, not verbal) to uphold the public’s interest in the process.

    The problem with proportional representation is that it creates perverse incentives for parties, candidates, and voters. See my blog entries on 5/23/02, 5/29/02, and 3/22/04 for a more extended discussion.

    Moreover, a PR-based multiparty legislature would be a weak counterweight to a winner-take-all executive. In parliamentary PR systems, the legislature CHOOSES the executive; I doubt Americans would want to give up voting directly on governors and presidents.

    But I haven’t seen this new proposal yet, and I’d like more details before I comment on the specifics.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Oct. 11 '05 - 11:15AM    #
  6. “Moreover, a PR-based multiparty legislature would be a weak counterweight to a winner-take-all executive. In parliamentary PR systems, the legislature CHOOSES the executive; I doubt Americans would want to give up voting directly on governors and presidents.”

    Larry, does your second sentence have to do with your first, above? They seem separate. And would you expand on the “weak counterweight” thought?

    (Meanwhile, I’ll check the blog entries you referenced.)
       —Steve Bean    Oct. 11 '05 - 05:19PM    #
  7. Forgive me for summarizing my arguments in a kind of shorthand.

    A multiparty legislature where the majority coalition chooses the executive is the parliamentary system.

    A multiparty legislature without that power is a fish out of water, and would be very weak compared to a directly elected, one-party executive.

    Whatever might be said in favor of the parliamentary form, I doubt Americans would want to give up voting directly for governors or presidents. (Leaving the Electoral College technicalities aside.)
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Oct. 11 '05 - 05:32PM    #
  8. I think somebody has been smoking too much of Ann Arbor’s official plant. 8-)

    I haven’t heard anything about this, and I think I would have.

    I think it’s a dumb idea, and will have no political support worth mentioning.
       —David Cahill    Oct. 11 '05 - 06:16PM    #
  9. Well, the bloggers linked to at the top seem to indicate the idea is coming from Mark Brewer, MI Democratic Party Chair(?). I find no mention on the MDP’s webpage, though.
       —Murph    Oct. 11 '05 - 08:09PM    #
  10. I have heard of this proposal from a couple of different sources, but last I heard it was going to be much too complicated to actually happen—especially when there are already likely to be two or three other big proposals on the ballot.

    Another aspect of the plan I heard was that the Independent Commission to handle redistricting would be made up of the University presidents from Wayne State, UofM, and MSU.
       —Libby    Oct. 12 '05 - 01:00AM    #
  11. That doesn’t sound good. If enacted, then partisanship would become a critical consideration for choosing and keeping university presidents, especially around the ends of decades.

    Remember that the university boards are already partisan. A president who was doing a great job could be fired because his loyalty to the party which held the board majority was questioned.

    I know everybody is hot for making redistricting nonpartisan, but I think it would be far better to enforce severe constraints on what the partisan line-drawers can do.

    One simple way to limit gerrymandering (and make the process more understandable for voters) would be to require that congressional, state senate, and state house districts all nest, so that every congressional district would be exactly two state senate districts, and every state senate district be exactly three state house districts.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Oct. 12 '05 - 01:33AM    #
  12. “A multiparty legislature where the majority coalition chooses the executive is the parliamentary system.”

    Larry, couldn’t we do it differently? Or do you think having PR in the legislature and still electing the executive directly would be even worse in some way?

    David, since you made the effort to express your opinion, how about going the next step and explaining your thinking so we might learn something? Specifically, why do you think it’s a dumb idea? You also seem to believe that improving our government is up to someone else. If so, why even bother discussing it?
       —Steve Bean    Oct. 12 '05 - 10:19AM    #
  13. The political culture in the U.S. is pretty much hardwired for the two-party system. That’s mainly because of the winner-take-all executive elections. Inevitably, the legislative races (held at the same time) end up being aligned according to the same coalitions, i.e., parties.

    So I don’t believe a multiparty state legislature could be sustained more than briefly in the presence of a one-party executive, nor do I think it would be a good idea.

    I’m a subscriber to “Ballot Access News”, and I have always opposed restrictions which make it difficult for small parties and independent candidates to get on the ballot. But unlike many of my fellow advocates, I don’t see anything especially wrong with having a two party system, or a need to make radical constitutional changes to overthrow it.

    Fundamentally, the two parties exist as they are because that’s the country and politics we have. Sure, there are plausible scenarios for a slightly different pair of coalitions to have emerged, but in the end, conservatives, liberals, labor, the oil industry, farmers, secularists, evangelicals, neocons, neolibs, etc., all have to fit in somewhere, like it or not.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Oct. 12 '05 - 10:58AM    #
  14. “The political culture in the U.S. is pretty much hardwired for the two-party system.”

    I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree here. I don’t believe that because executive and legislative elections happen concurrently that PR can’t be effectively instituted.

    I also reject thinking that seems to say that voters are so indoctrinated into the current two party system that even thinking of casting their vote for a third or fourth alternative on a larger scale than has been seen previously is unlikely. I think people would, rather, embace the opportunity.

    My stand is that if PR were to be “allowed” by the two party stranglehold (very unlikely), that their tight grip on power would be weakened (why it would be unlikely). Also, such a move anywhere in the country would be taken as a serious threat to the power of the current national masters of the system, and would be opposed tooth and nail. Therefore I doubt it will every happen without a serious catalyst.

    I myself would love to see PR instituted. Legislative factions may well be forced to work on compromises rather than digging in ideological heels for selfish gain.

    Rick
       —Richard Shea    Oct. 12 '05 - 12:32PM    #
  15. The political culture and the citizenry don’t equate. The two parties apparently don’t appeal to about half the US population. I’d say there’s something wrong with the two-party system on that basis alone.

    It’s not quite clear to me if your argument is circular, Larry, but it has that flavor. I won’t try to convince you, just suggest that you re-read what you wrote. I also hope you’ll go beyond your past thinking on this and (re)consider it now.

    Something else to consider: a primary goal of adopting IRV for single-seat offices (like the executive) is to get away from the many downsides of winner-take-all contests—from the campaigning and advertising to lack of issue focus to low election participation and non-majority winners.

    I’ll stop there since that’s a different scenario than the one in question. What about the prospects for the combination of IRV and PR? Any better? (And please keep in mind the non-democracy status quo.) I know you’ve supported IRV, Larry, so I’m really asking if you just overlooked that possibility or if you have some other reasoning behind your low opinion of PR. (I just read your blog entries and didn’t see enough to resolve this question.)
       —Steve Bean    Oct. 12 '05 - 12:41PM    #
  16. Larry,
    You said you had mixed feelings about a unicameral legislature, and I am interested in your reasons for not going to that system. Can you explain them?
       —tom    Oct. 12 '05 - 12:42PM    #
  17. I agree with others that the two-party system is hard-wired into the country. Third parties are either spoilers (remember Ralph Nader in 2000?) or cults. They may appeal to a few intellectuals in college towns in Michigan, but otherwise they have no support. If “proportional representation” in the rumored proposal means this, I’m against it.

    Multiple parties are often a recipe for deadlock. Consider the problems with multi-party coalitions in Europe. I favor a clear distinction between ins and outs, the good and the evil. Just call me Manichean. 8-)

    In the British Parliament, there are two opposing benches (sets of seats). The distance between them is set at the length of two swords, plus one foot.

    I admit that few people have a lot of good things to say about the Michigan Senate. When I was a lawyer for the Michigan House in the 80s, a particularly dim Representative announced that he was running for the Senate. We joked that this would raise the IQ of both chambers. (Think about it…)

    The Senate is controlled by Republicans, just like the House. I see no particular advantage in abolishing it. I would rather that the Dems simply took control of it.
       —Dave Cahill    Oct. 12 '05 - 02:33PM    #
  18. I got confirmation from a pretty reliable source that this is indeed being kicked around – although I have fears about too many issues on the ballot leading to confusion and defeat for all. (Not that some issues don’t need to be defeated next year).

    I’m undecided on whether unicameral is an improvement or not. It would certainly be a cost savings (think of all the salaries, benefits, staff salaries etc. that wouldn’t need to be paid), and Michigan’s budget needs all the help it can get. But I am all in favor of non-partisan redistricting, assuming we can get a “fairer” system in place, and draw as many districts as possible to be as competitive as possible. Depends on your definition of fair, I guess. (Intrigued by Larry’s suggestion of nesting districts as a constraint – but would that work out with our current amt of districts?)

    It seems like Ohio’s proposal is as close to a “fair” system as we can get (http://www.reformohionow.org/). The first member would be appointed by the state appeals court judge with the longest continuous service. The second member would be appointed by the next senior appeals court judge from a different political party. The first two commission members then would appoint the other three, including one member not affiliated with a political party. Any person or group could submit a congressional and legislative redistricting plan, and the commission would choose the plans judged to create the most competitive districts without dividing up counties and cities.
       —Laura    Oct. 12 '05 - 09:57PM    #
  19. Just to be clear: as I’ve said earlier (and in the blog entries I referenced) I’m in favor of IRV, and I have and will continue to fight for ballot access for alternative parties from Greens to Libertarians to Socialists to whomever. However, I am very much opposed to PR.

    My thesis is that we have two dominant parties in this country, not because other choices are banned or discouraged or oppressed, but because the structure of a unitary winner-take-all election for the executive creates a powerful incentive for all factions to find their places in two large coalitions.

    Countries where multiparty systems have been sustained generally have the parliamentary system instead of a direct election for the executive.

    Whatever the advantages of the parliamentary system, I don’t see the U.S. as willing to make that change.

    A lot of the political science and punditry of the last half century has been all about the decline of the Democratic and Republican parties, how much voters hate and distrust them, how many voters are rejecting both and becoming independents, etc., etc.

    But something unexpected has happened in the last few years: first the activists, then the voters, have suddenly gotten a lot more partisan, on both sides. I have been involved in politics for 35 years, and I have never seen rank and file voters as partisan as they were in 2004. Indeed, it’s a key reason I was elected county clerk, over a much more popular and much better known Republican incumbent.

    Moreover, this growing partisanship was accompanied by a sharp increase in voter participation, nationwide, in the 2004 election.

    There are some very earnest and intelligent folks all over the country who see PR as a wonderful panacea for whatever ails the political system, but I have to say that they are generally regarded, fairly or not, as being cranks. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the major party politicos fight them tooth and nail, or fear that they’d lose the hegemony with the creation of PR systems. Rather, I’d say that major party politicos don’t take PR or its advocates the least bit seriously.

    My own opposition to proportional representation is based on seeing the results of PR systems in the U.S. (e.g., the cumulative voting system formerly used for the Illinois House), which create perverse incentives for parties, candidates, and voters.

    In any case, without having seen it, I would venture to guess that any proposal developed by the Michigan Democratic Party (the rumor which started this discussion) would be calculated to put Democrats back in control of the Michigan legislature.

    As a Democrat, of course, I think that’s a worthy goal, but I doubt that kind of thinking will generate a proposal that will excite PR advocates.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Oct. 14 '05 - 12:19AM    #
  20. Larry, while I agree that voters have become both more numerous and more partisan in the last few years, I in no way think that can be used as evidence that, “Look, the two-party system is something people are happy with again!”

    In fact, I’d argue that the increasing partisanness (partisanity? partINsanity? hah.) of the most recent election cycle provides perfect evidence that the two-party system we have is not serving the people very well. I’d say that, with the recent increase in partisan identification, zealotry is on the rise, intelligent political discourse on the decline.
       —Murph    Oct. 14 '05 - 11:21AM    #
  21. It’s not a question of LIKING the two-party system, rather, it’s an incentive structure in which anyone who wanders away from it (e.g., Ralph Nader voters) automatically suffers as a result. Not because someone is inflicting punishment, just because that’s the way the game works. The incentives make it pretty much mandatory that anyone who wants to control the government has to do so through a 51% coalition. With everybody trying to do that at the same time, that pretty much dictates two major parties.

    A parliamentary system has different incentives, which tend to result in multiple parties, much more tightly disciplined than U.S. parties. European parties can and do expel people for failing to toe the party line.

    Proportional representation grafted onto a two-party state can lead to perverse results, as I explained in those blog entries.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Oct. 14 '05 - 11:43AM    #
  22. “anyone who wants to control the government”

    Maybe the desire to “control” the government (and all that entails) is the problem.

    Individual elections may result in “perverse” outcomes. Perversity is relative, though. And judging a system based on a single characteristic is short-arming the evaluation.
       —Steve Bean    Oct. 14 '05 - 12:34PM    #
  23. A group of people trying to get control of the government is the definition of the word “faction”, at least, as I was taught it. Why bother to be involved in electoral politics if you don’t care who controls the government?

    I think you’re operating with a very different definition of “perverse” than I am.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Oct. 14 '05 - 03:51PM    #
  24. Further news: I happened to see Michigan Democratic chair Mark Brewer at an event this afternoon, and he disclaimed any involvement in the unicameral legislature proposal.

    He said some folks in Barry County (a rural area between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids) are talking about it.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Oct. 16 '05 - 08:37PM    #
  25. Larry: This is kinda funny to see, since I’ve been doing a paper on Russian political parties and structural impediments to their development… The bits about how the American system encourages two parties are part of both high school civics and AmGov 101.

    In case Larry didn’t explain it clearly enough, in an election with more than two parties, the party that wins gets the rewards of victory, the party that comes in second has the belief that they can triumph next time, and the party that comes in third has absolutely no clout whatsoever. Aside from acting as a spoiler, there is no incentive for parties that do not think they can win, and it is inefficient to spend resources on them. Because of the structure of our elections, the range of candidates becomes deformed.
    The advantage of two-party systems is that action is generally taken more rapidly and with greater conviction than in multiparty states. Further, Larry’s right in noting that a strong party dominated legislature does act as a check on the power of the executive (though, obviously, not right now…)
    There are plenty of downsides to our system of government, but there really aren’t any systems of elections that don’t have massive things wrong with the (like home district representation etc.)
       —js    Oct. 17 '05 - 01:13AM    #