Monday, October 17, 2016

Editorial: An American Westminster Democracy?

With all the hoopla of the current election in the United States, and all the talk of primaries, conventions, the Electoral College, polls, scandals, etc. etc., it can all seem just a little bit overwhelming.

Mostly because of him...
American democracy has a lot going for it, but it's a hopelessly outdated system, with only minor tweaks since it was put together by the Founding Fathers in 1787. Take the Electoral College: it was designed to make sure the "mob" didn't dominate the country, with men above the political fray making the deciding vote on who would be President. The Senate was to be elected by the different states, and only the House of Representatives was elected by the citizens at large (and back then, only white men with some property). But over the years, eventually almost every office in the US, from President to Judges to State Governors to Dog Catchers were elected, though I think jobs like judges should be kept above the partisan fray. The checks and balances of the system are also something to be proud of, until of course it bogs down when two ideological opposites are in charge of the Executive and Legislative branch.

But the problems with the US system is still immense. The Electoral College is unfair for everyone: Smaller states have a larger vote than bigger states, but at the same time only a few states, like Florida and Ohio, can determine who will win the Presidency. Federal electoral districts are drawn up by the states, and in many states they are gerrymandered to give the party a better chance in Washington. It's more or less the way for successful candidates being able to choose their voters, and not the other way around.

I present to you... the Illinois Fourth District. Do I need to explain why this is stupid?
So why don't we just scrap it? Why not try a government system like in the United Kingdom and Canada? Of course, history wise we know it wasn't going to be even considered by the new US, considering what Parliament in far-off London did to piss off the colonialists, and I'll be the first to admit there are some issues with this form of government. But let's do a thought experiment, and see how the US would look if it had a system of government similar to the Westminster parliamentary system?

Well first of all, everything you know about US elections will have to be thrown out the window. Their will be a Prime Minister who is the leader of the government, and is usually the leader of the largest party (or coalition of parties) in a representative body, which can still be the House of Representatives in this version. The President can still be head of state, and he can be powerful (like in France) or weak (in Germany) as see fit. My guess, in order to maintain some checks and balances, the President would have a lot of power in this alternate American system. I'd give him the power to call elections for the House of Representatives (either with or without the "advice" of the PM), veto laws, and appoint judges and other executive positions, barring confirmation from the Senate. How the President is selected can be left up to debate. Maybe this is where the Electoral College would come in, but I'd be more willing to just have him either elected directly by the people, or selected by a joint session of Parliament/Congress. The Senate, if it would be similar to the UK or Canada, would have appointed members: say they are chosen by the State Legislators to sit until they retire, are removed, or died. In Canada, the mandatory retirement age is 75, so something similar could be seen here.

As soon as you reach sixty, you not only get the Seniors Bonus discounts at the Senate Restaurant, you also can apply for a lift chair in the chamber!

The Prime Minister, however, will have a huge amount of power, being the leader of the largest party in the House of Representatives. Now, the way the House would be divided up will be similar to OTL, but with one huge change: the electoral districts will be set by an independent, non-partisan committee. The UK's districts had been before determined by the monarch when Parliament and the House of Commons was being set up, but in many cases they didn't change. It got to the point in the early 1800s that many of the largest growing industrial towns like Manchester and Birmingham had no representation, while agricultural areas that had only a tiny population, or sometimes no population at all (Old Sarum, for instance, had only seven voters), would still elect two (TWO!) Members to Parliament. These "Rotten boroughs" were eventually done away with in 1832, though it wouldn't be until 1944 that non-partisan electoral boundary committees were set up to determine the boundaries. The US, in this Alternate History, might be sooner than that.

Elections will also be interesting. In the case of the federal government, they could serve a term as long as 4 or 5 years before mandatory elections, as long as the Prime Minister, and by extension his party, maintains control. Now, elections can be called sooner: In the event that the largest party doesn't have an overwhelming majority, a vote of non-confidence, say the opposition uniting to defeat the PM's budget or a major platform policy, can be enough to force the PM to ask the President to dissolve the House and call elections. For example, in Canada, between 2000 and 2015, we had six elections (2000, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2011, 2015), of which only three resulted in a "majority" government, or one where one party had more than half the seats (2000, 2011, 2015).

Justin Trudeau's hair also won a seat in a Montreal area riding, further bolstering the Liberal majority.
So, how would this version of the House of Representatives be made up? First, we'll say there are 435 seats, like OTL, and that they are evenly distributed by a non-partisan body like in Canada and the UK. If we use the numbers from the 2012 election (as it would be more representative of the US population, as turnouts are lower in "midterm" election IRL, and would more accurately determine the US's political view point at the time), the Democrats would have more seats, but only 212 seats. The Republicans, with 207 seats, would be the opposition. The other 16 would be held by third parties...

BUT WAIT! Unless the US decided to also change to something other than a first past the post system for elections, then it's not a guarantee that the Democrats would actually have that many seats, or that third parties would even gain a seat (which, unfortunately, is a problem still with the US's two party system). Possibly they might have more than that. After all, say there are three districts, each with 100,000 voters. In one district, 80% of the voters chose the Democrat, so that seat went to the Democrat. In District Two, 80% of the Vote went to the Democrat. But say in District three, the Democrat got 45% of the vote, the Republican 40%, and a Libertarian candidate the other 15%. Even though the Democrat didn't get a full 50%+1, he still won the election. This is just as true in the current system as it would be in the Westminster Democracy.

As with any election, you need three things... A map, different coloured pens, and numbers to decide everything!

However, one thing about the Westminster Democracy: third parties do have a much easier time in getting seats, especially regional parties. In the UK, the Scottish National Party holds 54 Seats, and with the other third parties and independents, there are 89 seats that are not held by the Conservatives of Labour party in a 650 member House of Commons. Similar in Canada: The Liberal Party holds 184 seats, the Conservatives 99, the New Democratic Party 44, the Bloc Quebecois at 2, and the Green Party at 1. But the Liberal Party, despite winning so many seats, only actually received 39.5% of the vote. So in the alternate US system, third parties, especially regional parties, would have a much easier time getting seats. For all we know, a "New Confederacy" Party could have swept the Southern States, or split the vote with another party to let a different party win.

"See, if only we didn't vote for the 'Haven't Got a Chance in Hell' Party, we could have prevented the Conservatives from winning!"

So would this system be better? In some ways, such as allowing third parties a chance to get more seats, yes. It would also make the House of Representatives more powerful in the Federal Government, as it's the body most directly in turn with the average citizen, with a President that has more limited powers and a senate composed mostly of appointees. In breaking deadlocks, perhaps. After all, if the party in power doesn't have a commanding majority, or a formal coalition, then it could be taken down at any moment, and a new election being held. But in more accurately representing the vote, that would be a no. In some cases, with more third parties, it could be worse than it currently is with the gerrymandering in the US system.

Now I'm not saying the US should use this system. But I think the US system needs a complete overhaul. It was established when a man on a horse was the fasting transportation possible, and concerns about full-fledged democracy was a major concern to the framers of the Constitution. But now with cars, cell phones, the Internet and cable news networks, the old fashioned system is showing it's strains, and will eventually completely fall apart.

Unless that is actually what America wants to do...

But what do you think? What would the United States be like if it took the political system Ye Old Englande? Or if you have a topic or idea you would like me to talk about, please leave comments below, email me at, or tell me on Twitter @tbguy1992.

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