The Threat to Democracy Runs Deep, But Mathematics Could Address the Abominable State of Representation and Voting

Comparison of the pre-2020 puppy [L] and the post-2020 earthworm [R] reveals a fairly likely instance of partisan gerrymandering in Illinois's 13th congressional district. Image: Amy Sanchez/The Daily Illini

In November 1990, an election took place in Bosnia, my home country, that changed the course of my life. I had no idea that it would; at sixteen, I was too busy growing out my hair, playing in a band, hanging out with my friends, and being hopeful about my all-consuming (and generally nonmaterializing) romantic pursuits. I’m not sure I even noticed that an election was happening around me.

Following similar elections in Slovenia and Croatia the previous spring, this was Bosnia’s first general election while it was still a constituent republic of Yugoslavia, a country whose socialist-era days were clearly numbered. Three ethnic parties, representing Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and Serbs, swept the election and formed the new seven-member presidency. The dream of Bosnia as a multicultural, multiethnic model of tolerance and coexistence for the rest of Yugoslavia—and Europe—had started to unravel.

On June 25, 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia. A brief military intervention in Slovenia and a full-scale war in Croatia quickly unfolded. The military campaign was initiated by Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic, which was unwilling to relinquish its centralized and increasingly nationalistic power.

The day after those declarations of independence took place, I was on a plane to Boston on a two-month visit to an uncle who’d already lived there for several years. The timing was a coincidence; my family had been planning this trip for a while. But midway through my visit, seeing that a fate similar to Croatia’s was not unfathomable in Bosnia, my mother suggested that I try to stay in Boston—maybe turn this visit into the fun and valuable experience of spending my senior year in an American high school, wait things out a little. I hated the idea. All I wanted to do was go back to my band and my friends. But deep down, I understood that staying was the sensible thing to do. So I stayed.

In April 1992, as I was getting ready to graduate from high school, the war reached Bosnia after a referendum on its independence. Serbia’s barbaric aggression, of a magnitude and brutality not seen in Europe since World War II, lasted for three and a half years.

And here I am, thirty-two years later. And there they are, those same parties. They continue to profit from the tired playbook of dialing up fear and nationalism during each election cycle, stoking grievances from the past, and skillfully turning artificial ethnic segregation into streams of money that fill their coffers. Bosnia is a country with no prospects, its only claim to fame the incessant flood of its fleeing youth, who barely glance in the rearview mirror as they search for a better life elsewhere.

Traces of what led to Bosnia’s demise are unnervingly apparent in the United States. Our political system is a knotted web of malfunctioning processes that propagate and amplify the perils to democracy from every direction. Our elections elevate candidates who don’t represent the true will of the people and the distorted agenda that results is carried out to the dissatisfaction of most Americans. Fanatical bases gather under banners of intolerance and exclusion while vast swaths of the population feel disenfranchised and removed from the political process. The connection between an ordinary citizen and the government that purportedly acts on their mandate has never been stretched this thin.

Underpinning all this is a failure of mechanisms that run our democracy. A failure of algorithms, of the choice of mathematicsyes, mathematicsthat governs voting, allocation of legislative seats, districting, and representation.

A vast majority of our 520,000 public officers are elected in mathematically abominable winner-take-all races that cause spoilers and vote-splitting, discourage political diversity, support the duopoly’s iron grip, and encourage negative campaigning. Crowded primary elections elevate fringe candidates who compete in districts that have been gerrymandered into uncompetitive insignificance, with millions of voters (rightfully) feeling like their voice doesn’t matter. The vastly undersized House of Representatives creates a vacuum between the representatives and the 760,000 people they are each somehow supposed to speak for, a gap skillfully filled by lobbyists and special interest groups. The Electoral College repudiates the ‘one person, one vote’ mandate and perpetuates inequities in the voting power between voters in different states.

Changing the civic infrastructure that powers our democracy would go a long way in mending it. Mathematics is a clear-eyed guide that can suggest which processes need updating or replacing. From this perspective, there’s no question that ranked choice voting (RCV) is superior to winner-take-all and that we should be using it in all elections. This would encourage participation and increase political diversity. Using popular vote in primaries and presidential elections would give each person a voice and prevent small bases from dictating the outcomes. Congressional and state districts should be larger and should elect multiple candidates (again with RCV). This would engender representation commensurate with more people’s preferences and would effectively end gerrymandering. The House should be increased so that each of its members represents a manageable number of constituents. These are all basic structural changes. No politics, no partisanship, just plain math.

The parallels between Bosnia and the US exhaust themselves quicklyafter all, I’m comparing a country of 3 million to the world’s most dominant and domineering superpowerbut the political paralysis shored up by faulty mechanisms of democracy is shared. While a different voting method like RCV would probably not have changed the outcome of that milestone 1990 election in Bosnia, the leading parties have benefited greatly from presidential winner-take-all elections since the war. Many of their candidates were elected with minority support, potentially misrepresenting the people’s will and perpetuating Bosnia’s stagnation. The hacksaw Frankendistricting, one of many concessions to the three factions enacted by the 1995 peace agreement brokered in Dayton, Ohio, entrenched ethnic divisions that have been calcifying ever since.

Failures of democracy are now all too visible in the US just like they were in Bosnia. The remaining question is to what extent the resemblance will persist. I dare not even entertain the possibility of a leap over the precipice of a bloody conflictit will be bad enough if our political and ideological impasse and our entrenched inability to find common ground lasts for decades, as it has in Bosnia. The only way out is to start at the foundations, to rebuild our civic infrastructure, to change the mechanisms of democracy that stifle our voices and pit us against each other.