Vol. 13 No. 4 (April 2003)
JUST ELECTIONS: CREATING A FAIR ELECTORAL PROCESS IN THE UNITED STATES by Dennis F. Thompson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. 262 pp. Cloth, $27.50. ISBN: 0-226-79763-5.
Reviewed by Thomas G. Walker, Department of Political Science, Emory University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org .
American elections are viewed by most as fair, just, and ably administered—at least when the outcomes are clear and decisive. But when elections are close and the results are in doubt, charges and countercharges of fraud, mismanagement, disenfranchisement, and incompetence are predictably launched. Under these conditions, the weaknesses and inefficiencies of the electoral process are laid bare. Such was the case following the 2000 presidential election in Florida, a politically divisive episode that touched off calls for electoral reform and prompted important reevaluations of the way America selects its public officials. JUST ELECTIONS, the most recent work by Dennis F. Thompson, Alfred North Whitehead Professor of political philosophy at Harvard University, was born in the aftermath of that controversial election. Yet the book is much more than a quick reaction to a particular event. Instead it reflects years of careful thought and evaluation of electoral practice in the United States.
Thompson is a political philosopher, and this is a book of political theory. JUST ELECTIONS offers a normative discussion of the standards our elections should meet in order to be fair and just and what might be done to improve the process. While the book makes numerous references to law and courts, its goal is a much broader examination of the institutions that link the people to their government.
Thompson finds fault with evaluations of the American electoral system that emphasize individual rights. He holds that such an approach is incomplete because it neglects the interactive effects and structural patterns of the institutions in which elections take place. While citizens may cast their votes as individual acts, only the citizens acting together can reform the system. As a consequence, Thompson focuses his argument on the institutional aspects of the electoral process, relegating individual rights to a secondary concern.
JUST ELECTIONS is based on three organizing concepts: equal respect, free choice, and popular sovereignty. These are the building blocks of fair and just elections. Each of the book’s three primary chapters gives central stage to one of these principles.
By equal respect, Thompson means simply that the democratic process should treat all citizens as free and equal persons. As applied to the electoral process this requires that each citizen be given equal opportunity to have his or her vote equally counted. But this principle is not absolute. Thompson acknowledges that denials of equal respect may occur if justified by “respectful reasons.” For example, he allows that inequalities based on such “ascriptive characteristics as race and gender are not acceptable unless they can be shown to benefit citizens disadvantaged because of their race and gender.”
Thompson focuses on three elements of the electoral process that are especially relevant to the goal of equal respect: casting votes, drawing district lines, and counting ballots. Throughout this discussion the author is concerned about laws or practices that have a negative impact on disadvantaged groups. For example, disenfranchising convicted felons and resident aliens disproportionately affects minority groups and the poor. Thompson also wrestles with issues such as easing registration requirements, constructing representative districts using racial criteria, and providing incentives to encourage citizens to vote. In doing so he acknowledges the fine line between promoting equal respect and sending messages of disrespect.
While the free choice principle generally calls for enhanced ballot alternatives, improved voter information, and removing the voter from any undue external pressures, Thompson clearly demonstrates the complexity of these relationships. He would prefer a proportional representation system using single transferable votes because such procedures eliminate wasted and forced ballots. But Thompson understands that the United States is not likely to adopt such reforms in the foreseeable future, and thus he discusses the impact that fusion candidates and blanket primaries might have on voter choice. Thompson’s long and interesting discussion of the role of information highlights the fact that more information does not always have a positive effect on voter behavior. As examples of additional information that may have negative effects, he highlights the imposition of ballot notations (e.g., a candidate’s name on the ballot is accompanied by his or her position on, say, term limits) and the availability of exit poll results prior to the completion of voting. Finally, Thompson tackles the complex issue of campaign finance and the roll of money in influencing voter choice.
The third pillar of just elections is popular sovereignty. In a representative democracy this means a general acceptance of majority rule, constrained by such constitutional guarantees as free speech and equal protection. But Thompson believes that two additional limitations should be placed on majority rule when regulation of the electoral process is at stake. The first qualification is the Madisonian notion that an institution should not be granted final governing authority over the rules that determine its own membership. The second limitation flows from the Hamiltonian principle that states should not have final authority over the process of electing members of the federal legislature or the president. These qualifications reveal the weakness of allowing legislatures or the states to determine the nation’s electoral procedures. Thompson has similar concerns about the use of popular initiatives (often dominated by special interests and having insufficient deliberative capacity) and the courts (excessive emphasis on individual rights and difficult threshold requirements such as standing) to decide electoral system questions.
Thompson suggests that the answer might be found in the use of constitutional revision commissions. Such commissions would be created through the normal democratic process and be given authority to develop reform proposals. The reforms would not be adopted unless approved through democratic procedures. As such, these commissions would combine both democratic and aristocratic elements, retaining popular control over the electoral process without sacrificing deliberation and expertise. Ironically, Thompson notes that the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission, initially established in 1968 in response to the reapportionment controversy, approximates the model he has in mind.
Thompson’s volume is well written and richly documented. It assumes a middle ground by advancing abstract theory with recognition of what might be politically possible. Ideologically this work lists decidedly in the liberal direction, but many of the ideas Thompson promotes are somewhat inconsistent with the standard liberal agenda for election reform.
The value of JUST ELECTIONS is not in the answers it provides. In fact, Thompson’s suggested increased use of constitutional revision commissions as a possible solution is one of the least compelling portions of the work. Instead, the real value of Thompson’s book is found in the questions it presents and in the way it forces the reader to think hard about the application of important principles to the electoral process. He is not satisfied with allowing the reader to reach easy, but superficial, conclusions about the current status of our electoral institutions or the impact that various changes might have. He consistently asks the serious student of electoral reform to consider different perspectives and approaches. This is made possible, in part, by Thompson’s acknowledgment that principles of democracy do not have single, simple meanings. Instead they call for interpretation and require choices among competing understandings with no one approach being uniquely reasonable. The empirical political scientist may grow weary with a book that provides more questions than answers, but the democratic theorist interested in the role of electoral institutions will find much of value here.
Copyright 2003 by the author, Thomas G. Walker.
Back To LPBR Home