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Electoral Perspective

Acclaimed political scientist says small electoral reforms have big impact
  • UMass Amherst professor Amel Ahmed stands in the Integrative Learning Center.

“...very small shifts in electoral system design can have a massive impact...on the kind of policies that are produced, but more generally on who has a seat at the table.” —Amel Ahmed

Political scientist Amel Ahmed focuses her work on what she calls “esoteric topics, such as small electoral reforms” that, she says with a laugh, don’t always spark the liveliest of conversations at dinner parties. But those seemingly minor topics can have long-term, far-reaching effects on the political system, notes Ahmed, associate professor of political studies at UMass Amherst.

In her work (including Democracy and the Politics of Electoral System Choice: Engineering Electoral Dominance, winner of a 2014 Best Book Award from the American Political Science Association), she examines the development of democratic systems from a historical perspective, with a particular eye toward changes whose significance has been overlooked.

She’s found, she says, “that very small shifts in electoral system design can have a massive impact. Not just on the kind of policies that are produced, but more generally on who has a seat at the table. Who are the powerbrokers? Who’s going to have input on agenda setting?”

These historical lessons can be useful in the contentious, unsettled political climate surrounding this year’s election. “People’s energies are going in lots of different directions,” Ahmed says, “and there are a lot of important things to be pursued.”

As she wraps up a research project on democracy in interwar Europe—a historical project that she says “also has interesting lessons for the current moment”—Ahmed is now turning her attention to an area that she feels is profoundly important: congressional redistricting. Her next project will explore alternatives to the current redistricting approach.

State legislatures redraw congressional district lines every 10 years, using data from the most recent U.S. Census, to ensure that each district has roughly the same number of people. The process is governed by other rules, too—for instance, in Massachusetts and other states, communities with shared interests should not be divided—although those tend to be subjective and can leave the process open to political manipulation.

Historically, says Ahmed, redistricting has prioritized “fairness”—in other words, “making sure every constituency has a slice of the pie.” While on its face, she says, fairness certainly sounds like an admirable goal (“Who’s not for fairness?”), that approach results in a lack of competition and, consequently, a lack of public engagement.

Over the years, “certain parties have been very, very effective at controlling state legislatures and governors with the goal of making redistricting work to their advantage,” Ahmed notes. Specifically, they’ve been effective at protecting seats held by their party. “Both the left and the right are responsible for this,” she says. “Instead of pushing for competitive districts, they push for safer seats for their candidates, securing what they have.

“It’s a short-term goal with not-so-great long-term consequences,” she continues. When there’s no real competition on Election Day, people aren’t motivated to be politically involved, and “the machinery of participation gets ground down.” Only the most dedicated show up to cast their votes. The key to reform is finding a model that levels the playing field, binding both sides by the same rules so that neither feels at greater risk of losing their “safe seats,” and instead shifts the priority to empowering communities, not political parties.

Amid the turmoil surrounding the recent election, Ahmed notes “people are hypermobilized, looking for something to do” but often failing to find an outlet. She believes they’d do best to focus their energies on the less glamorous but extremely important work of local politics and organizing. “The most impactful mode of participation is something that’s visible, substantive, and aimed at public engagement,” she says: protests, celebrations, town hall-style debates on issues, events in support of a piece of legislation.

“Mobilization has to happen at the grassroots. It has to be the regular mode of activity. There have to be organizations on the ground that network people even when there’s not an election.” But in their focus on big elections, the major parties have let these sorts of local structures atrophy—inadvertently creating a vacuum whose effect is keenly felt right now.

“The short-term goal is to mobilize, organize—all of those things, absolutely,” Ahmed says. “But the long game is to figure out how to revitalize these communities so they are in a semipermanent state of mobilization.”

Maureen Turner