A Systems Framework for Remedying Distortions in U.S. Democracy
21 Pages Posted: 2 Apr 2021
Date Written: March 8, 2021
Democracy can fail to meet its ideals, and electoral institutions can intensify the failures. Unwanted outcomes include polarized institutions, unresponsive representatives, and the ability of a faction of voters to gain power at the expense of the majority. Various reforms have been proposed to address these problems, but their effectiveness is difficult to predict against a backdrop of complex network interactions. Here we suggest that systems-level modeling can help understand and optimize repairs to U.S. democracy. Following the tradition of engineering and biology, models of systems include mechanisms with dynamical properties that include nonlinearities and amplification (voting rules), positive feedback mechanisms (single-party control, gerrymandering), negative feedback (checks and balances), and integration over time (lifetime judicial appointments). To illustrate a systems-level approach we analyze redistricting procedures that can generate partisan or racial bias or create seats whose legislators need respond only to their core constituency. Restoration of regulatory feedback leads to representation that more closely follows classical seats-to-votes relationships. New voting rules can moderate mechanisms that lead to partisan sorting at the level of candidates for office, especially if the political scene has a second dimension, thus escaping the limits imposed by national polarization. Reforms such as ranked-choice voting, campaign finance reform, and redistricting reform must be understood in the context of the politics and procedures of individual states. An understanding of how mechanisms interact can help not only scholars, but aid reformers in designing effective and lasting outcomes.
Keywords: democracy; complex systems; voting rights
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