Representative democracy is in crisis in the United States. One of the three pillars of our system of government — the legislative branch — is failing. The current Congress has shut down the federal government, bickers constantly and increasingly does not speak broadly to the American people. Obvious problems, from a struggling middle class to a flawed tax code to crumbling roads and bridges, go unaddressed. The American people have certainly noticed; according to Gallup, 80 percent disapprove of Congress.
We can’t let 535 people continue to limit the progress of a nation of more than 300 million.
After two decades spent gaining a data-driven perspective in the private sector, I believe that problems on this scale are usually caused by structural failures. Our electoral process has created perverse incentives that have warped our democracy and empowered special interests and a vocal minority. Congressional dysfunction is the logical result of closed primaries, too many gerrymandered one-party seats and low-turnout elections.
To address these problems, I filed the Open Our Democracy Act in July. If passed, the legislation would mandate open primaries for House elections, begin the process of national redistricting reform and make Election Day the equivalent of a federal holiday.
• Step one is giving independents and moderates a voice. Maryland, where independents are the fastest-growing voter bloc, is an example of a changing electorate that isn’t being served by the current system. In January 2001, according to data from the state Board of Elections, 13 percent of Maryland voters were not registered as Democrats or Republicans; by July 2014, that number was 19 percent. This group now includes more than 700,000 people — more than the population of Baltimore — but it plays little role in Maryland politics, because in most of the state, primary elections are the only contests that matter.
Around the country, we select candidates using a partisan primary filter, then act surprised when the huge portion of the electorate that isn’t ideological is unhappy with its general-election options. My legislation would open House primaries to allow all voters to participate in one race, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the general election.
Such a system is much more likely to send pragmatic bridge-builders to Washington. Because of low turnout, candidates in traditional, closed primaries have an incentive to appeal only to the most committed — and ideological — voters. In an open primary, the electoral math changes, and reaching out to swing voters becomes more important. Open primaries can have a moderating effect even in districts that are so red or blue that the top two candidates are likely to come from the same party; in both primary and general elections, an ability to win votes beyond a narrow base could be decisive.
• Step two is redistricting reform. Gerrymandering has turned the vast majority of House districts into one-party enclaves, whose representatives’ main concern is making the most rabid faction of their parties happy. According to the Cook Political Report, only 16 percent of House districts are competitive, and I can tell you from firsthand experience that members from these districts are much more likely to work on a bipartisan basis. We know what’s happened in Maryland, which Governing magazine ranked as having the most gerrymandered congressional districts in the United States, but my state isn’t alone. In Virginia, a true purple state, there is only one competitive House contest this fall; meanwhile, the state’s congressional delegation is dominated by a party that has lost the last three statewide elections.
Not only do safe districts encourage the election of members who won’t compromise, they rely on irrational boundaries to achieve their goals. When this happens, communities lose their vote in Congress. My bill would put us on a better path, directing the Government Accountability Office to examine the feasibility of national standards for drawing district lines. Let’s examine what works — a number of states provide good examples — and develop a framework.
• Step three is to make it easier to vote. In some states, polls close as early as 6 p.m., and even later closing times can be difficult to manage for working parents who have to commute from work to day care to home to a polling place. My bill treats Election Day as a federal holiday so more Americans can participate.
We need to act. Low voter turnout, gerrymandering and non-competitive elections are creating a frightening negative feedback loop. As mainstream voters grow increasingly disgusted and apathetic, only extreme partisans stay interested, creating more race-to-the-base contests, which then turn off more moderates and on and on.
Congress has lost the will to find bipartisan solutions. In the past, divided government didn’t mean open political warfare. The Highway Act, the Clean Water Act, tax reform and the Americans With Disabilities Act were accomplished under divided government. We can get there again.
Each of the reforms in the Open Our Democracy Act, individually, would help counteract the dysfunction that has broken Congress. Taken together, they can do more than that. Let’s make the House of Representatives actually representative.
John K. Delaney, a Democrat, represents Maryland’s 6th Congressional District in the House.
Special To The Washington Post