Skip to main content

Kennedy School Review

Topic / Democracy and Governance

You Can’t Fix What You Don’t Understand: The First Step in Democratic Reform

The 2020 election sparked calls across the political spectrum for structural reforms to our political system. Many Democrats, for example, again derided the electoral college and advocated for its elimination. A bevy of Republicans expressed demands for more voter verification methods such as an ID requirement. Others, like Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter, co-authors of The Politics Industry, have advocated for various structural reforms long before 2020. 

Whether you support some or all of these ideas, their success is contingent on people actually understanding the current system. Only once people fully realize the limitations imposed by the current antiquated system will they be informed and motivated enough to prioritize and pay attention to structural reforms. This fact means more resources must be spent on formal and informal civic education. Thankfully, there are folks like Jerren Chang, founder of a civic engagement start-up and a student at the Harvard Kennedy School, working on this exact issue. 

As mentioned, many Americans want to reform the electoral college. Having an earnest debate about such a large structural shift requires addressing the fact that proponents, opponents, and the public at large may not thoroughly understand the Electoral College itself. 

A majority of Americans don’t know how the electoral college actually works. In a survey conducted by the American Bar Association, 54 percent of respondents failed to correctly identify how votes in the electoral college are allocated among the states. A third of respondents wrongly stated that the number of registered voters in each state determined the allocation; just 46 percent correctly selected “[t]he total number of a state’s Senators and Representatives.” This limited knowledge suggests that few Americans are sufficiently informed to have a robust conversation about the pros and cons of various alternatives to the electoral college.

Voter fraud is another area in which calls for reform are common in some circles, but widespread understanding of the problem (or lack thereof) and proposed responses are in short supply. This shortage of understanding has given voter fraud far more attention than it deserves. 

In fact, the importance of understanding the existence and severity of structural flaws is perhaps best expressed in calls for eliminating voter fraud. Many Americans perceive voter fraud as a regular occurrence that necessitates immediate intervention: according to the same ABA survey, 52 percent of those surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that voter fraud is a problem in the U.S. electoral system. In response to that knowledge, the ABA found that “a significant majority [of respondents] supported or strongly supported requiring voters to present an ID to prove their identity before voting.” Note that analysis of alleged voter fraud by the Brennan Center found “incident rates between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent.” This goes to show that where a structural issue is perceived (even if incorrectly), the public will back sweeping reforms. 

Other structural issues are either unknown or poorly understood. Americans intuitively feel as though elections are unfair but aren’t quite able to pinpoint the source. 

Presently, despite the fact that incumbents in Congressional races win upwards of 95% of the time while receiving abysmal approval ratings, a mere 60 percent of Americans believe that elections are fair, based on a NPR/Marist poll. If so many Americans question the fairness of elections, why do voters continue to support those benefiting from a biased system?

The disconnect, in part, can be explained by a lack of understanding among Americans of how the system itself affords incumbents an undue advantage over their challenger(s). Those barriers to competition include gerrymandered districts made “safe” for Democrats or Republicans as a result of huge partisan skews, plurality voting that permits candidates to receive less than a majority of the vote but still squeeze by, and, in many states, closed primary systems that lock out non-affiliated and third party voters. 

Eliminating the structural flaws in our democracy requires two key actions: first, identifying those flaws; and, second, thoroughly understanding them. That’s why Jerren’s work at GenUnity is so important. The GenUnity program provides thorough civic lessons on singular issues, such as affordable housing, to Americans of diverse ages, backgrounds, and life stages. The first such GenUnity cohort was equipped with an understanding of the ins and outs of eviction laws, tenants rights, and other related areas. The cohort is now able to mobilize around how to participate in and reform those laws and systems. Imagine a GenUnity course on election laws or redistricting processes — these courses would achieve the aforementioned requirements for even starting to think about structural changes to our democracy. 

The curriculum at GenUnity is exactly the sort of in-depth training required to empower Americans to take on structural issues that have produced unrepresentative electoral and unresponsive policy outcomes for far too long. Once Americans are made aware, for example, of how closed primaries limit their ability to select among all candidates and disenfranchise many of their neighbors, they’ll be more likely to support reforms like open primaries and ranked choice voting. 

There’s a saying that “you can’t be what you don’t see,” meaning that it often requires someone that looks like you encouraging you to follow their path to know that path is even available to you. In the context of our unfair political system, you can’t fix what you don’t understand. It’s time to focus on that understanding element and make sure that every American knows the extent and severity of our structural flaws and the remedies to make our democracy more inclusive and responsive.

Kevin Frazier is a born and raised Oregonian. He is pursuing an MPA at HKS and a JD at the UC Berkeley School of Law. In his spare time, he runs The Oregon Way blog and covers the nexus of technology and good governance. You can follow him on Twitter @KevinTFrazier

Photo credits: Element5 Digital (via Unsplash)