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Open Primaries

Gerrymandering. The primary voting system. The U.S. Electoral College.

These are just some of the problem areas with our system of choosing and electing those who represent us in each branch of government.

So ... what's wrong? Let's examine these three systems.

1. Gerrymandering is what happens when districts are divided up to favor one political party over another.

Also known as "redistricting," gerrymandering is when the incumbents who are in power after an election get to draw the boundary lines to make up districts of voters that benefit their own party. It's super hard to explain.


Frequently, it's used to concentrate ethnic, political, or religious blocks of people into defined districts. This then could mean that the districts around them become more dense with supporters of the incumbents or party in power.

Here's a very simple graphic to illustrate the concept — and how easy it is to make changes in districts that favor those who wish to stay in power:

Image by Steven Nass/Wikimedia Commons.

But it can also disenfranchise people in those districts. For example, let's say a district is 60% African-American, 20% Latino/Hispanic, and 20% Caucasian.

As you can see from the graphic, re-drawing the lines can mean voters lose out on the chance to have a representative and fair election in their "new" districts. They can be redrawn in ways that "spread out" the influence of those voters across other districts, so 60/40 split can be flipped to a 40/60 split, as you see in the graphic on the far right above.

Another pretty dramatic example, from Travis county in Austin, Texas:

Image by P. Henry/Wikimedia Commons.

In this case, the districts were redrawn to include counties that have historically much more conservative (Republican) bases, which watered down the votes from the city of Austin, known to be much more progressive/Democrat.

2. The primary system we use to choose candidates is also severely flawed.

What happens when a tiny fraction of possible voters get to choose who is actually running for office?

That's what inevitably happens in most state and federal elections across the country. If you're a registered Republican, you get to vote in the primaries for that party. Democrat? Same. But what if you're among the more than 40% of voters who are independent?

In many states, you have to actually register as a member of a party in order to vote in the primary.

If registering as a member of a party you don't necessarily agree with on many issues rubs you the wrong way, join the club. Millennials are increasingly opting out of our two-party system. It's something to consider when thinking about the pool of voters who choose our two dominant party candidates in presidential elections, for instance.

3. The Electoral College is something that is a holdover from when this country was still very young (1787, to be exact.)

Perhaps it's time to reconsider using it?

Popular vote by political party, 1788-2012. Image by ChrisnHouston/Wikimedia Commons.

Remember when the 2000 election was decided by the Electoral College and not by popular vote?

(You DO remember that, right? The Electoral College is what decided that election after the Florida recount. And recount. And recount.)

In that election, Al Gore received 540,000 more votes than George W. Bush in the popular vote. However, Bush won 271 electoral votes, and Gore, 266. Bush was, of course, declared the winner. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Electoral College basically means that representatives from each state are elected and pledge to cast their votes for president in a "winner take all" manner; that is, they pledge their votes for the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in that state.

The number of members of the Electoral College is dependent on the number of House and Senate reps in each state; currently, if you include the District of Columbia, there are 538 total electors. The winner of the presidential race has to end up with a majority of those votes from electors in each state in order to be declared winner.

Some say this basically means the popular vote isn't what it's supposed to be: one person, one vote.

Others say that by eliminating the Electoral College and going to straight popular vote, candidates will ignore smaller "swing" states and focus on population centers.

These are the problems, but are there any solutions? Maybe!

Some folks are working to change some of these problems. For example, some want to change our primary system so the top two vote-getters in the primary, regardless of party, are the two who are on the final ballot. It's called an "open primaries" system, and it's already being used in at least a few states and most municipal elections.

Here's a video from FairVote, and they're working toward that and a bunch more ways to change things for the better. (Plus, it's headed by none other than the bassist for Nirvana (!), Krist Novoselic.) Check it out:

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