David O'Brien

Legal Fellow

David O'Brien

The first election I paid much attention to was the 2000 presidential race, which gave me an inkling that our election system might have some problems. I ended up going to law school, where I took a lot of classes in constitutional law. I was struck by how much of our constitutional system is built on the assumptions that elected officials will be representative of their constituents, and that elections rather than courts will be the ultimate arbiter of many disputes. “Throw the bums out,” my Con Law professor would tell us whenever we asked how the Constitution addressed resolving some contentious political issue. “That makes sense,” I’d think to myself, briefly, before remembering how our government actually functioned. Then I’d shake my head and return to updating my fantasy football roster. (Just kidding. I was definitely paying close attention and studying.)

The lesson was clear: when political factions are able to protect their incumbency and entrench their dominance, the assumptions that underlie our constitutional system are stripped away. (And leaning too heavily on running backs in the draft leaves your offense vulnerable to mid-season injuries.)

Unlike most fellows, I didn’t come to FairVote immediately after graduation. After law school, I held several positions—researching post-9/11 detention policies, working at a firm that handled mortgage foreclosures after the housing crash, criminal defense—that gave me a pretty good introduction to dysfunctional systems. It was my most recent position that really awakened my interest in democracy and governance issues and eventually drew me to FairVote.

For two years before coming to FairVote, I served as counsel to the legislature of a small country in the Pacific. I was impressed by both the enthusiasm its citizens had for their young democracy as well as how fragile a democracy can be. I got to work on almost every issue a country can face. I was able to appreciate just how much Americans take for granted about our own democracy. And I could see how different systems operated.

I was there for a national election, where I saw a president elected through a popular-vote runoff rather than an electoral college, and a senate elected in one at-large district through block voting rather than individual winner-take-all districts. While novel to me, systems like those are well-established across the rest of the world. Watching the most recent American election play out from afar, I came to realize how badly in need of reform our system is. I’m excited to join FairVote in its mission to bring that reform, and create a government where all Americans are fairly represented, new ideas and candidates are welcomed, and our leaders are incentivized to pursue the public good rather than zero-sum, political gamesmanship.

 

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