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A reminder: There are other ways of doing democracy

We’re so accustomed to our U.S. system of politics and government that we don’t think much about other ways of doing democracy, including ways that would end the two-party duopoly. 

Voters filling out ballots at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, Kentucky, on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Bryan Woolston
Ballotpedia compiled a list of the closest congressional races of 2020, of which 76 were decided by a margin of 10 percentage points or less. Considering that there were 470 total House and Senate races on the ballot, (all 435 in the House plus 35 Senate races — including two special elections) the list is mostly impressive for how few squeakers it produced. 

Just one U.S. House race, in Utah, was decided by less than 1 percent of the vote. The two closest of the Senate races, the reelection of Democrat Gary Peters of Michigan by 1.35 points and Republican Thom Tillis of North Carolina by 1.7, could certainly be called very close but not exactly historic squeakers.

The closest among Minnesota’s eight U.S. House races were likewise small-but-not-squeakily-small wins by incumbent Democrat Angie Craig in the 2nd Congressional District (by 2.2 percentage points) over challenger Kyle Kistner, and by incumbent Republican Jim Hagedorn in his rematch reelection (by 3 percentage points) over Dan Feehan in the 1st Congressional District. They were close enough to make the Ballotpedia list, but not recount-worthy.

Sen. Tina Smith’s victory margin of 5.37 percentage points over challenger and former Republican Congressman Jason Lewis will give Smith her first full term. She had won a special election in 2018 to serve the unexpired portion of Al Franken’s term. While all the races above made Ballotpedia’s list of close races, I’m more impressed with the large-ish size of the margins.

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To clarify what a squeaker looks like, see Franken’s 2008 victory over Norm Coleman by 312 votes (that’s one one-hundredth of one percent of the ballots), requiring an extended recount that I helped cover for MinnPost, and preventing the declaration of a winner for seven months while the recount was agonizingly conducted, without any partisan bias by those involved. ( I love Minnesota.)

But back to this year’s races: Of all 470 House and Senate races on the ballot, just 76 were decided by a margin of less than 10 percentage points. If you take a win of 10 points as a blowout, as I do, that means 84 percent of all House and Senate races were deeply uncompetitive. If you consider a winning margin above 5 percentage points as a fairly solid win, that would describe all but 35 of the races, although I gather there are a few that, for various reasons, are still being counted. 

We’re so accustomed to our U.S. system of politics and government, and perhaps some of us are used to assuming that we are a model of democracy, that we don’t think much about other ways of doing democracy, including ways that would end the two-party duopoly. 

The most different form from ours may be the Israeli model, which kind of appeals to me even though it seems to produce a fair bit of its own craziness. I’ve mentioned it before, but just to help you think outside the box, here’s how that one works:

There are no districts. Voters don’t vote for an individual but indicate their preference for a party. All members of the Knesset, or parliament, are chosen at large, according to the percentage of the total vote their party received. In the most recent election, 11 different parties reached the threshold to get at least some of the 120 seats in the Knesset. If no party gets a majority (and no party ever does) the two biggest parties often try to form a coalition that constitutes a governing majority of 61.

It sounds crazy, and maybe it is. But in America, a party could get 25 or more percent of the vote and get zero seats in Congress and zero power in government. To me, that’s a little crazy, or maybe I should say a little undemocratic. The result, of course, is that both major parties are themselves less-formal coalitions.

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We now have two parties that find it extremely difficult to compromise. Since in the U.S. system, it requires a majority of both houses of Congress to pass a bill and a president to sign it, we have devolved into semi-permanent gridlock. 

That, most recently, has led to the following: A president (Donald Trump), chosen by neither a majority nor even a plurality of the electorate, expanding executive power on the fly to do a great many things that are opposed by a significant majority of the electorate and do not command majority support in the legislative branch. 

If all goes sanely in January, we will inaugurate a less ignorant and megalomaniacal president. But he will still face a Congress divided across party lines which will have to govern by bipartisan agreements, or not at all.

The Israeli system is a fairly extreme example of parliamentarianism. But even the more common forms, like the British model, are designed to have a prime minister and a cabinet that leads a party or a coalition that represents a governing majority. When it can’t govern, there is a mechanism to call an election and assemble a government that can.

Crazy, right?

One more comparative government point, which seems extremely relevant at the moment. In the typical parliamentary system, as soon after the election as a government, commanding a majority in Parliament, can be formed, the old prime minister leaves and the new prime minister moves in.

The two-plus months in our system, during which the losing president remains in office and in possession of full (and now recently expanded) powers, leaves a divided Congress to deal with a president who in this case has declared that the Constitution gives him the power “to do whatever I want as president.”

The Constitution says no such thing. Not even slightly. But let’s see what the current incumbent tries to pull under his belief in the “whatever I want as president” doctrine.