State political systems in the U.S. are boring. I don’t mean to imply that interesting things never happen in state politics; after all, state races and legislative sessions reliably produce scandals and debates that command attention both locally and nationally. Rather, I am suggesting that the fundamental political institutions that comprise American states are lacking in diversity. For example, why is it that nearly every state presents as a Lilliputian United States? There are so many fascinating ways to organize democratic political systems, and yet nearly every American state settles for the boring, conventional American presidential system and bicameral legislature (which are usually given the creative labels of State House and Senate). U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once declared that states are the laboratories of democracy, and yet it seems that every state is seeking to act as a control experiment. With the hapless, sclerotic U.S. federal government failing to get much of anything accomplished at a time when the U.S. faces significant challenges from multiple directions, this is a shame and a national failing.
As Evan and I have pointed out over our several years of blogging, there is nothing special about American democracy. The U.S. possesses a fine system, but other countries arguably do things better, and it is only American complacency and self-assuredness that prevents the U.S. from learning from its democratic peers. For example, American states could choose to abolish their presidential (gubernatorial?) systems and instead adopt a parliamentary system like that of Japan. But if that’s too radical for your liking, why not let them try the French approach of a mixed system featuring both a president (governor) and prime minister (minister president)? Alternatively, governors could be retained for purely ceremonial roles, not dissimilar to the Canadian Governor General, and leave governing to the state legislatures. Heck, why not have some states replace governors with royal families? That could present a nifty little sinecure for Trump and his progeny (I wonder which state would ennoble him) while having the added benefit of getting Trump out of real politics and back into make-believe political pageantry, which would be best for everyone involved.
But why settle for these relatively tame adjustments when we could go further still. One idea I particularly like is the establishment of a fourth branch of government. This may seem crazy, but it works in other countries! Taiwan, an exceptionally well-run country that has handled COVID-19 much better than the United States, has five branches of government. One of the branches, the Examination Yuan, is in my view a tad anachronistic and not well suited for the United States. The Control Yuan, however, would be an excellent addition to America’s three extant branches. An oversight branch that executes the roles of an ombudsman, comptroller, and auditor, the Control Yuan has the power of impeachment for lower level officials, investigates corruption, and conducts audits of the national budget. In many ways it is similar to the GAO, but it is more powerful and autonomous due to its status as a full and equal branch of government (though it still suffers from partisanship and should be reformed and improved). It can therefore act independently, which is something that might have proved useful during recent investigations into Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton. Instead of relying on members of state houses or state attorneys general with clear conflicts of interest, we could have controversies investigated by our very own Control Yuans.
There are also changes that could be made to the American electoral system. There is no reason, for example, that Americans must vote for politicians in a single member plurality system. Instead, seats could be allocated proportionally based on the popular vote total. The German approach of mixing proportional representation with candidate-based voting is another attractive option. Alternatively, elections could be based around single member districts but require an outright majority to elect a winner, relying on transferable votes and an instant runoff system to determine the winner. In this case, voters would rank their preferences, with their vote being reallocated if their first choice is eliminated. This reallocation would continue until one candidate won a majority of the votes. These kinds of systems would be advantageous because they reduce the problem of wasted votes and encourage people to vote for parties they like instead of against the party they hate, increasing civic participation and goodwill toward the political system. There are an enormous number of electoral systems, of course, and each have their defenders. But the good news is that there are 50 states, so the U.S. can try a lot of different electoral systems on for size.
To be sure, there are already some institutional variations across states. For example, Nebraska has a non-partisan, unicameral legislature, and Colorado has experimented with quadratic voting to resolve budgetary disputes. There is also some innovation on the electoral college front, with states like Maine and Nebraska allocating at least some of their electors based on the plurality winner in each congressional district. But these tweaks are fairly miniscule, and there is little to suggest that any more ambitious reforms are in the offing. Why is it that Israel is able to tweak its electoral rules seemingly every election but out of 50 U.S. states there is almost no experimentation? I think the problem is partly that the U.S. is just too old, and so its institutions at both the state and federal level are ossified and captured. Without a shock to the system, things will just trundle along as they are. Of course, the other answer is that existing power centers don’t want reforms that might curtail their influence. The two political parties don’t want electoral reforms that could bring in serious third party challengers, and new branches and legislative systems are a threat to those who have climbed to the top of the existing system.
This is truly a shame, because America desperately needs political innovation, and the states are the ideal place to start. For one, they share culture, language, and other key attributes with the country writ large. Thus, information gleaned from these state-level experiments might prove more informative to federal reformers than data gathered from similar institutional arrangements in countries in other parts of the world. Second, downside risks are limited to a single state, so misguided reforms would only inflict limited damage. Third, state level reforms can help ease people into larger scale transitions. If the U.S. were to hold a national constitutional convention now, for example, it would be a chaotic disaster. But if careful experimentation and innovation at the state level proved successful, the lessons learned could influence civic discourse and form an intellectual base on which to model wide-ranging federal reforms.
State-level modifications to the political system have the added benefit of insulating state politics from the national environment by making local institutions unique and state parties different from those in the national legislature. For example, Puerto Rico has a completely different set of parties than the mainland United States, and the Northern Mariana Islands have several parties in addition to the Republicans and Democrats. This is because these islands are territories and not states, shielding them from the national political landscape. But making state political institutions and electoral systems more heterogeneous could create the same effect. Instead of local elections simply being a referendum on Donald Trump, state contests could focus on local issues, which would lead to better quality government and greater voter engagement. As one author cogently notes:
There are at least half a million elected officials in the United States. Only 537 of them are federal. And yet almost all of our collective attention is on those federal officials and in particular, just one of them: the president. As a result, elections these days, at every level of government, increasingly operate as a singular referendum on the president. Candidates matter less and less, party more and more.
By adopting more idiosyncratic state political systems, we might just be able to halt the seemingly inexorable nationalization of American politics.
Some may find this variegated landscape of state political institutions and parties disturbing. Some may worry that this diversity could only make politics more fractious. But I disagree. This very diversity would reduce tribalism by making many parties more locally oriented and by changing the electoral incentives facing candidates in each state. Of course, this may lead to more state-based identities emerging, but I’m not sure this is such a bad thing. The U.S. is a very old country with an established national identity, and national pride is quite entrenched. Even if I were to feel marginally more Georgian, that doesn’t mean I would cease to identify as an American as well. And arguably this state-oriented approach is exactly what the founders intended. After all, they put deeply inequitable institutions like the Senate and Electoral College into the Constitution exactly because they sought to maximize the influence of place and reserve a privileged position for the states. The United States is a federal state; it shouldn’t be seeking uniformity across state politics but rather vibrant diversity and experimentation. It would spice things up, provide new ideas with which to drive reform at the federal level, reenergize local politics, and strengthen federalism. Why not at least give it a try?