Ky. voices: Michael Coblenz says third parties could break partisan gridlock

Michael Coblenz 
is an intellectual property attorney 
in Lexington.
Michael Coblenz is an intellectual property attorney in Lexington.

Politicians are always saying they want to change the tone in Washington, but nothing changes. The two parties have the Capitol in a death grip and government has largely ground to a halt. To break the partisan gridlock, maybe we need to change the system.

One way to do this is to allow third parties to participate on an equal footing. More voices might end the Democrat vs. Republican death match, and more ideas might make our political debate more informative and meaningful.

Our current elections are decided when the first candidate to pass the 50 percent mark wins. This type of election favors two dominant parties that can create a coalition that will provide a majority of the vote. This "first-past-the-post" type of election leaves little room for third parties.

One way to open the political process is to create multi-seat districts, where two or three people can be elected. This is not unlike the "at-large" council position in Fayette County.

As an example of how this might work, Kentucky has six U.S. representatives and could easily be split into two large three-seat districts. A slate of six or more candidates would stand for election, and the top three would gain a seat. The major parties would get the same number of candidates as seats, and minor parties would get on the ballot initially by petition and subsequently based on ballot success during elections.

There are many benefits to this system. It is more representative since most people will have voted for at least one successful candidate and will feel they have a voice in Washington. Multi-candidate elections are less susceptible to negative campaigning since destroying one opponent doesn't help a candidate win. Large multi-seat districts are much harder to gerrymander, and multi-seat districts allow candidates with small but loyal followings to get elected. That means that in a conservative state like Kentucky a Tea Party candidate could gain a seat, and in a liberal state a Green Party candidate might win.

This system would work even better if we increase the number of Congress members, so states would have more multi-seat districts. For most of the nation's history, Congress grew as the nation grew. The number 435 was set after the 1910 census, and has remained unchanged ever since, not because of a constitutional requirement, or based on a theory of government, but simply because of congressional inaction.

In 1910 there was one Congress person for roughly every 200,000 people. Today it's one for every 700,000 people, which isn't very representative. If we set the number at one Congress person for every 500,000 people, Congress would only grow to 620 members. Kentucky would then have eight representatives and could easily be divided into three multi-seat districts.

There's also historic precedent for multi-seat districts. In the first three presidential elections, a slate of candidates ran: The candidate with the most votes became president, and the candidate who came in second was vice president. And for most of the nation's history, we had multi-seat districts. These were most common at the state level, but did exist at the national level. This system allowed the Whigs to emerge in the 1830s, the Republicans in the 1850s and the Progressives in the 1890s.

This system did not change until the late 1960s after a Supreme Court voting rights case. The court expressly didn't invalidate multi-seat districts, but Congress found it much easier to reapportion the states based on single-seat districts with roughly equal population. And, not surprisingly, many state legislators found it much easier to gerrymander their states this way.

Partisan gridlock is stymieing legislation from both sides of the aisle, and the current system is locking out new parties, new people and, most importantly, new ideas. Creating multi-seat districts may seem radical, but it's firmly rooted in our national history. And it might seem extreme, but it may take extreme measures to change Washington.