Making Government Work: A Former Congressman’s Plan to Revive American Democracy

To watch American elections is to watch democracy in action.

Or maybe not.

As former U.S. Congressman Mickey Edwards sees it, the United States has devolved to a point where the most extreme members of the two major political parties—not the public at large—control who can get elected. That’s not democracy, he argues, and he wants to change it.

The Oklahoma Republican knows the current system well, having served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1977 and 1993, including several years as a member of the House Republican leadership. Now a visiting lecturer at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, he was a guest speaker at the SVIA’s 2015 Fall Forum, where he outlined his case for overhauling the nation’s election system.

To see how the current system has gone awry, Edwards says, one need only look at a handful of recent elections in which popular politicians lost primary elections to extreme opposition candidates based on the votes of extraordinarily small slivers of the public. In Texas in 2012, for example, three-time Republican Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst beat newcomer Ted Cruz in a primary race for the U.S. Senate by 12 percentage points, but lost to Cruz in a runoff election in which Cruz’s total votes represented just 2 percent of the Texas population. Two years earlier, Tea Party-backed long shot Christine O’Donnell had beaten nine-term U.S. Rep. Michael Castle in Delaware’s Republican Senate primary, despite receiving only 30,000 primary votes in a state of a million people.

Dewhurst could have run as an independent candidate against Cruz in the general election and likely would have beaten him, Edwards said. And he’s convinced the popular Castle could have done the same against O’Donnell. But neither could try because of their states’ so-called sore-loser laws, which, like similar laws in 44 other states, prevent politicians who lose a primary race from being on the ballot in the general election. “Almost every place in America, we have a system in our elections that allows small, ideological subsets of the population decide who can even run,” Edwards said. “We have undercut the very basis of American democracy.”

Gerrymandering by both parties—manipulating the boundaries of an electoral constituency to favor one party or another—contributes to and perpetuates the problem, Edwards added.

There are signs of a backlash. In a 2013 Gallup poll, 42 percent of voters identified as independents. And Edwards notes that several states, including Arizona, Oregon, Texas and Ohio, are considering legislation that would do something like what Washington state has done: eliminate party primary elections so that everybody is on the same primary ballot. “In Washington state everyone who is running for the same office is on the same ballot: Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens, maybe three of this, two of that, whatever,” Edwards said. “You don’t choose to vote in primary A or primary B. You choose among every candidate for that office. If nobody gets over 50 percent, you have a runoff. It could even be two people from the same party. But if it’s two people from the same party they are no longer appealing to the far right or the far left because they have to appeal to the entire electorate.”

Edwards noted that California has adopted an approach similar to Washington’s, except for presidential contests, and said he’s hoping for more reforms.

One area where Edwards distances himself from many others calling for election reform is in opposing term limits for members of Congress. “Term limits says having a lack of experience is a virtue,” he said. “It also says we’re going to take away from the voter the ability to choose. If you have somebody in Congress representing you and doing a good job, and serving the interests of your community, why should you be punished and be told you can’t choose that person anymore?”

Edwards isn’t particularly sympathetic to candidates running for president as political outsiders, either. “They’re amateurs. If Ben Carson needed brain surgery, he would not go to an amateur,” Edwards said, referencing the retired neurosurgeon seeking the Republican nomination for president. “Amateurism is not right in your business, and it’s not right in trying to run a government of 320 million people with a huge army and nuclear weapons.”

Edwards also is critical of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which treats corporations as people under campaign finance law. Although he’s in favor of money in politics—he said there should actually be more—Edwards is not a fan of having that spending power concentrated in the hands of the few. “Right now,” he said, “less than 200 people are giving the overwhelming amount of money going into the primary system.” He favors getting rid of campaign money from political parties, PACs, corporations and labor unions, while limiting individual contributions to a “reasonable amount.”

“It’s time we said we are a republic in form of government, but we are intended to be a democracy in the sense of the people choosing who will make decisions,” Edwards said. “And we’re going to have to make fundamental changes for that to happen.”